Ethics of Feeding Wildlife for Photography / by Jon Groves

The topic of feeding wildlife has been an active on social media that often leads to heated discussion. I’ve never been one to dive into such topics because voicing an opinion on this matter in attempt to sway the view of another is largely and exercise of futility. I’ve decided to write a short opinion piece on this topic based on my own experience with wild raptor photography.

Snowy owl

Snowy owl

Even those not particularly interested in natural history are enamored by raptors. Much of the online rhetoric among nature photographers inevitably arrives at the controversial subject of feeding raptors for photographic purposes. Most call the practice "baiting" and I’ve heard all sorts of reasons for why it shouldn’t be practiced. Here is a short list of the more common arguments against "baiting" that I've heard:

-Habituation where the raptor loses its hunting instinct - This is an illogical argument. Instinct is an inherent behavior. When a raptor is fed by a human it doesn't forget how to hunt or eat. Just like a songbird doesn't forget how to forage for food after the feeder is empty.

-Increased risk of road-traffic mortality in habituated raptors - Raptor mortality due collisions with anthropogenic sources occurs regardless of supplemental feeding. I cannot see how feeding increases risk of mortality on a population scale.

-Causing general undue stress to the raptor - How is this measured? I would argue that photographers constantly flushing birds trying to get close for a photograph cause more stress.

-Feeding an owl mice causes disease in raptors - rodents are by far the safest food for a raptor, I'm not aware of any transmittable diseases from a mouse to a raptor through consumption.

None of these arguments against feeding raptors are supported by evidence and you'll often hear anecdotes about an owl that suffered somewhere because of feeding by photographers. Like most contentious subjects, arguments against are emotionally charged. I feel the majority of those outspoken photographers against feeding raptors for photography see it as cheating, selfishly loading the dice to take a "better" photograph. Most will never state this as their reason and will instead regale you with tales about stressed and dying owls as a result of feeding mice. I understand the logic that attracting raptors with food for the purposes of photography is a contrived and unnatural situation...I can comprehend why there are wildlife photographers not interested in the practice for this reason alone. Like other photographers, I appreciate the rewarding experience that comes from taking a wildlife photograph without the use of a food attractant to stack the deck in my favor. But please avoid taking an emotional position based on conjecture by saying the raptor can be harmed in some way through feeding. Those against the practice of "baiting" will call it unethical. Ethics are a matter of personal opinion and each person's moral compass is different. It's a slippery slope when it comes to ethics and nature photography, some ultra-purists will even frown upon photographing habituated wildlife in parks and sanctuaries. The "anti-baiting" sentiment is amplified further by the sort of photographs that would be impossible to take without a food attractant - this breeds anger and resentment fueled by jealousy in those who don't support the practice.

Interestingly, many vocal opponents have no problem feeding songbirds at a feeder for the purposes of photography or observation. Passerines are generally granivorous and raptors are obligate carnivores, I see this as the only difference but I derive my opinion from years of handling raptors through the sport of falconry, rehabilitation, and bird banding research. Many don’t realize that bird feeding has numerous detrimental effects in spite of its growing popularity. Studies have shown that using a feeder for songbirds causes them to congregate unnaturally with increased risk to diseases such as avian pox and trichomoniasis. Some will argue that bird feeding is beneficial through increasing survival, especially during winter when food resources are limited. Why is it any different for a raptor? I don't believe it is, but a very vocal group strongly opposes feeding raptors yet they’ll feed chickadees out of their hand all day long and not bat an eye. You'll rarely (maybe never) read any online discussion surrounding the "baiting" of a hummingbird with nectar and a flower setup for photography, this has always perplexed me.

On a personal note I’ve worked closely with raptors since I was a teenager and developed much of opinion based on the experience I’ve gained with handling the birds through falconry, rehabilitation, and bird banding activities. I am an ardent conservationist interested in natural history and ecology well before taking up nature photography and I have yet to see an example where feeding wild raptors results in any negative effect to the birds. I will also argue that some food-stressed raptors during winter can benefit substantially from supplemental feeding. With all the risks wild raptors face due to human activity, feeding raptors shouldn’t be something warranting much discussion in my opinion. Based on cumulative threats of habitat loss and fragmentation, combined with the increasing human footprint, we should be more concerned with actions that actually cause population declines in raptors. If I knew that feeding raptors caused negative consequences I wouldn’t do it, I have too much appreciation and interest in the birds to be comfortable with the potential stress or demise of an individual for my own selfish interest in taking another photograph.