“You always hurt the one you love.”
The Paparazzi vs. Hedwig
February 11, 2016
“You always hurt the one you love; the one you shouldn’t hurt at all. ”
The Mills Brothers amongst many.
In mid-February a member of the Photographic Society of the Parker River Wildlife Refuge posted an article about a snowy owl that had been admitted to a rehabilitation center in Nova Scotia. It was starving and died minutes after admission.
The owl looked entirely healthy with pristine feathers but underneath those gorgeous feathers it was a skeleton. The director of the center cautioned that it was impossible for the average person to assess the condition of snowy owls even through binoculars.
The article got me thinking. Why were there so many photographs of snowy owls on the Plum Island site? Certainly they are charismatic birds but was there something about their behavior that made them especially easy to photograph?
Normally snowy owls stay above the Arctic Circle. It is only when the population of lemmings explodes that the adult owls chase the surfeit of juveniles off the feeding territories so the juveniles have to fly thousands of miles south to find food. When they finally arrive in New England they are often to be so completely out of their normal environment.
They attempt to find large open spaces that look like the tundra they are used to, and many end up in seemingly inappropriate places like airports. As it turns out airports are not so inappropriate after all. Other than occasionally being dashed to the ground by the blast of a departing jet they seem to do pretty well. They are not disturbed by humans and find plenty of food including ducks, geese, rodents and occasionally each other.
But other juveniles do get acclimatized and find places like Rye New Hampshire and Plum Island. But there they run into another problem, an army of photographers keen on getting shots of their very own favorite bird.
A few of the photographers are just plain irresponsible, tramping through private property, highlighting the birds with high powered flashlights and getting much too close. But even the responsible photographers seemed to be in denial about just how much they could be disturbing these unique birds.
Snowies are the largest and heaviest owls that we have in New England and unlike other owls they are diurnal because of their ancestral home above the Arctic Circle. That means they have to hunt and rest both day and night in order to catch enough food to stay alive.
In the Arctic they do this by sitting on a snow-covered expanse of tundra so that their white plumage blends in with their snowy surroundings. And they are unlikely to see predators for weeks at a time and almost never see a human.
Their instinct is to stay still because once they fly they can be seen against the sky. So they sit very still on their winter feeding territories, which they defend against all comers.
So what happens when they are forced to fly south to find food? The first thing they find is that their white plumage causes them to stand out like beacons on the snowless marshes and beaches of places like Plum Island. The second thing they discover is that as soon as a photographer spots a snowy owl he will be joined by a scrum of other photographers sporting expensive cameras, tripods and four-foot long lenses.
The owls think the photographers are either competitors or predators, so their instinctive behavior is to stand their ground. When the owl stares at the photographers or yawns it sets off such a flurry of whirring and clicking that it sounds like the President has just announced he plans to bomb China.
But what the photographers interpret as winsome expressions or yawns of contentment are actually signals that the photographers have interrupted the birds never ending search for food. And the birds are reminding the intruding paparazzi that they are armed with formidable beaks and dangerous talons and will use them if the intruders stray into their private hunting grounds.
Inevitably, one of the photographers will approach too close and the owl will have to expend a huge portion of its total energy budget to fly to another part of his feeding territory or more dangerously into the feeding territory of a neighboring owl. And none of this works because the photographers just jump in their caravan cars and give chase.
After months of this sort of behavior the birds can accumulate so many stress hormones, that their immune system will be compromised making them susceptible to a fungal mycosis of their lung tissue, in other words, pneumonia. But their feathers will still be bright and shiny and the owls will still look cute and healthy.
When it finally comes time to fly back to the arctic circle to breed some of the owls might be too weak to make the trip, or be so underweight when they arrive that they wont have enough reserves of fat to produce viable eggs.
Of course the photographers will be none the wiser. They will have taken some wonderful pictures, received some likes on their Facebook pages and never realize they might have just loved one of their favorite birds to death.
William Sargent’s latest book, Plum Island; 4,000 Years on a Barrier Beach is available in local bookstores and through Amazon.com.