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Monday, June 24, 2013

Owl Country Alert

Smart phones are more than just an intrusive nuisance that degrades the quality of an outdoor adventure.  According to England’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds some high-tech bird watchers have crossed the line in the sand from observing our feathered friends at a respectful distance to interfering with their mating and nesting habits with the irresponsible use of smart phone apps. 

While the father of modern day bird-watching John James Audubon got up every morning at 3 o’clock to bird watch his way through an impenetrable wilderness of swamps and jungles, today’s birdwatcher encounters no such difficulties.  Modern bird watching is just a matter of selecting the species you wish to observe then determining their latest computer generated GPS coordinates.  Then select the appropriate bird song app and power-blast this call out into the hinterland for the enjoyment of others.  With luck, patience and a good battery you can observe and photograph rare and colorful birds to your heart’s content.

The Royal Society encourages people to use their phones to identify bird calls not to attract birds.  Wildlife officials in England have expressed concern that the practice of playing bird calls is disturbing and distracting to birds that need to concentrate on feeding, breeding and nesting. When a bird hears another bird of the same species call in its territory the bird must investigate the intrusion to see if the other bird is a potential rival, mate or both.  This can make the bird and its nest vulnerable to predation.  Impersonating an endangered species is Illegal in England. The Wildlife and Countryside Act makes it against the law to disturb certain birds. It is a crime punishable by a five thousand pound fine and six months in prison.

While rare and endangered birds are safe from harassing calls in England this same practice has become a government career in the United States. Maybe you have heard of the spotted owl.  Millions of acres of forest have been put off limits to logging and thousands of people have been put out of work to preserve this iconic species.  Despite these preservation efforts the population of the spotted owl continues to decline to this day, even in the pristine wilderness of Olympic National Park that does not allow logging.

For the past 25 years while the loggers were shut down for disturbing the owl, teams of owl surveyors have been out every spring  calling the owls to determine their numbers. These surveys typically occur during the breeding season when many sensitive wilderness creatures are the most vulnerable.  A Spotted owl responding to a phony spotted owl surveyor’s call exposes them to their most feared predator, the Great Horned owl.

I picked up this bit of information when I was an out of work logger attending the Spotted Owl Survey School in Olympia. It’s kind of like a boot camp for bird watchers.  During “Hell Week” I asked the instructor if surveying Spotted owls didn’t endanger them. When I came to, I had washed out of the program. Owl biologists are nobody to mess with.  There is a plan, which has not yet been approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove (shoot) barred owls for crowding out the spotted owls. So if you go out in the woods today be careful with your smart phone apps. You may want to avoid broad casting the barred owl call. A Federal biologist could be just over the next ridge with a load of buckshot that’s got your name on it.    

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