Observing a Snowy owl in the wild is a truly thrilling experience, but we must remember to keep our excitement in check and use caution when viewing and photographing this animal. As human stewards of these majestic owls, we are responsible to respect them by putting their needs ahead of our own desires to see them or photograph them up close. So how do we do that? This video will give you some guidelines for safely finding and viewing Snowy owls. As birding is increasing in popularity, we ask you to watch and share this video to help us spread the word about the importance of safely and respectfully viewing Snowy owls!
The first, and perhaps most important rule of safe snowy owl viewing is to view from a distance. Here are some other tips and ethical considerations:
🚫 Never approach or flush roosting owls. Although they may be out and visible during the day, making it seem as if they are active, they are nocturnal, which means they are trying to rest during daylight hours. A constant barrage of disturbance keeps the owls alert and unable to rest. This causes them to unnecessarily expend energy that would otherwise be used to keep warm or to hunt for food.
With binoculars or a scope, you can be afforded a much better view of a distant bird and keep the bird relaxed. This is important as it prevents you from approaching the owl for a closer view.
👍 Staying in your car can help as it can be used as a blind from which you can view and take pictures. If you are exiting your car, park on the correct side of the road and turn your engine off. Then exit slowly, quietly, and if possible, using the side of the car that is out of view of the owl. While viewing from outside, stick close to your vehicle and use it as a blind while making sure to keep your movements slow and voices quiet.
👍 It’s always good to limit your time with and potential disturbance to the owl – as you will likely not be the only one viewing it.
👍 When you do run into other people, encourage them to practice safe viewing and help them to do so when necessary by lending your scope or by giving some pointers. Always be respectful when correcting any behavior that is unsafe for the owl. Remember the golden rule to treat others as you want to be treated.
👍 And, of course, always respect private property, fences and signs!
🚫 Do not entice owls using bait food, such as mice. This behavior is detrimental and puts owls at risk to pathogens carried by the non-wild food source. Additionally, owls that are repeatedly fed may become habituated to humans which can cause unnecessary dependence, reducing natural instincts for hunting. It may also encourage the birds to frequent areas that may be harmful to them, such as highways where they can be struck by cars.
🚫 Owl calls or making squeaky mouse noises have also been used to gain the attention of the owls – often in an attempt to get a photo of the owl looking at the camera. But this constant barrage of disturbing sounds keeps the owls alert and unable to properly rest.
🚫 Snowy owls have a distaste for dogs, so make sure to leave your pup at home when seeking out owls.
While safely viewing Snowy owls be sure to watch the behavior of the bird for signs of stressful reactions to your presence.
Different owls have different tolerances, so don’t treat them all the same. If the bird is behaving in a relaxed manner, great, but if the bird indicates it is stressed, it is time to back off or leave. Here are some behaviors that indicate both relaxed and stressed owls – as gleaned from the International Owl Center.
👍 Relaxed owls:
- Eyes shut and the bird seems to be sleeping (as indicated with the lower eyelid being shut)
- If eyes are open, but the the upper eyelid is slightly relaxed slightly (so the eyes are not fully round) and it is not looking at you
- Its body and feather posture will be relaxed
- Owl may be preening or stretching
- Actively hunting
🚫 Stressed owls exhibit the following behaviors:
- Their eyes may be wide open, fully round and looking at you
- Rapid blinking means “back off” or “go away”
- Its body posture could be erect and alert
- It may be in “Concealment posture” with eyes open only as slits, body feathers are compressed, and ear tufts erect (and yes, Snowy Owls have tiny ear tufts!)
- If it’s readying to fly, it may posturing with bobbing head with wings parted from the side of its body
- Most daytime flying indicates disturbance
Below are some additional resources on Snowy Owl viewing, identification and more
Snowy Owl Viewing Etiquette:
Why Not Feed Snowy Owls?
Taking Snowy Owl photos the RIGHT way:
VIDEO – Snowy Owl takes flight in fading light of late afternoon:
Snowy Owl Identification
US Fish & Wildlife Feather Atlas:
- https://www.fws.gov/lab/featheratlas/browse.php (click “list all species” and scroll down to “Snowy Owl” for images of feathers seen in program)
Snowy Owl Migration and Tracking:
Ottawa County Parks & Recreation