The Great Bait Debate (For the full story click here)

This issue is undoubtedly going to spark discussion amongst our readers. Feel free to join the baiting debate by writing to me at editor[AT] I realize this is a very passionate topic and I would ask that you submit tastefully written commentary on the issue. We will publish these comments in a future Letters section of the magazine.

In the world of bird photography, there has never been a more polarizing issue than the use of live bait for raptor photography.

The method is simple:

1) Get some live feeder mice (those intended for purchase by reptile enthusiasts to feed their pet snakes, etc.) from a pet store.

2) Find a raptor that will tolerate your presence within a reasonable distance.

3) Toss a mouse onto the ground somewhere between you and the raptor and be ready to shoot. 

The technique will work for any raptor, in theory, but it’s most commonly used for owls. The ultimate goal is typically not to produce an image of an owl eating a pet store mouse, but rather an image of the owl in flight before it gets to the mouse. The boreal species, such as the great grey owl and the northern hawk owl, are popular targets since they often tolerate close human approach.

But the controversy has been inflamed over the last decade or so almost exclusively by the baiting of snowy owls. And although the technique has been used for much longer than a decade, it’s the recent widespread interest and accessibility of nature photography in general that has truly brought the obscure practice into the limelight.

If ever there was need for modern-day proof to indicate something mythical about the owl, we need only look at the effect it has on humans when one is sited nearby an urban area. Last winter’s British Columbia coastal snowy owl invasion, the 2007-2008 snowy owl influx in Casselman, ON and the 2004-2005 great grey owl invasion at Ile-Bizard, QC are only a few examples of mass hysteria over the presence of raptors with forward-facing eyes. Birdwatchers, bird photographers and even the otherwise-disinterested-in-nature public all come out in droves. By introducing a controversial activity into this melting pot of varying interests, the resulting conflict is not difficult to understand, but it is easy to underestimate. Screaming matches, police intervention and even the occasional shoving are quite common if the conditions are right. 

There are several reasons that the different groups involved can find baiting offensive and distasteful. Most feel that the act of feeding a wild raptor will somehow harm the bird itself. There are allusions to the nutritional value of feeder mice. There are concerns that a dependency on human handouts will be fostered, effectively putting the bird in harm’s way later in its life where humans with less-than-benign intentions are allowed into its personal space. Admittedly, there’s not a lot of scientific evidence to support these theories. Others find the idea of sacrificing mice for the sake of a photograph to be cruel. Clearly, this effect is enhanced by the cuddly nature of a mouse versus the more commonly sacrificial life forms such as worms for fishing. 

Although a few Quebec municipalities have managed to outlaw the practice of using live bait to attract owls, it’s generally not yet illegal throughout Canada. Other areas have tried to mitigate the problem by rigorously enforcing trespassing laws, effectively keeping photographers away from the owls. But what’s truly amazing about baiting is the intensity of disapproval and the willingness of those involved to go to great lengths in order stop it. Based on the attention garnered by related threads on on-line forums, one might conclude there is greater passion aroused from baiting than there is for other, more verifiably harmful practices against nature. Could it be that the heart of the matter may indeed be a supernatural effect that owls have on mankind? More than likely, unwillingness among owl fans to share something of beauty is what’s truly behind bird photography’s biggest controversy.

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