An important note about the owl images on our website: They’re all wild owls captured in a wild setting, without intended human interference.
What does this mean?
You may have heard the debate raging in some circles that an increasing number of owl images are the result of baited situations – people placing, in some cases, store bought mice in fields in order to get owls to fly at them. We do not bait, but we also know that we’re not perfect.
Any interaction with wildlife has the potential to alter behaviour – it can be as unintended as a sneeze (which once caused a moose to run away from us) or as absent minded as driving too close to a subject.
Wildlife photography – and observation research – is a learned skill, improved by information, experience and mentorship. We can all be better at what we do and all of us should constantly demand better of ourselves. That, after all, is being human. As is admitting imperfection – and we’re most certainly imperfect.
What we’ve learned through research is that owl baiting is not illegal, but it can cause the death of the creatures we love. Owls baited near roads are more prone to being hit by vehicles and those baited with non-native species can become ill or die from exposure to chemicals or disease. Moreover, simulating a hunt is not the same as capturing truly wild behaviour – and, ultimately, observing and documenting unknown or rarely seen acts is the gift photography can give to conservation education.
We’ve also learned that remaining silent and staying still (even if our noses are dripping from the cold or the mosquitoes are biting in the summer) is the best way for us to show respect to the animal we’re documenting.
More critically, we’ve discovered that it’s imperative that we learn about the species we seek to observe before we enter the field and then take the time to observe the creature, if possible, before we photograph it.
Educating ourselves about wildlife ecology enables us to understand the subtle signs an animal might be telling us – that we’re too close or we’ve stayed too long.
It also enables us, as storytellers, to prepare to document a natural owl take-off or impending hunt.
Though it often requires patience and missed shots, it is – despite what some might say – possible to photograph an owl in flight (even an owl flying at you) without baiting. Our owl flight images are hardly the gold standard, but we know many who have captured award-winning images without interference. And we know, with more hard work and patience, our dream shot will one day be realized.
The more we take the time to really learn from our subjects, the better images we capture and the more authentic the stories we’re able to tell. That helps us get closer to our stated goal of being being good stewards and good educators, while also ensuring our love for nature actually helps sustain nature.
Though Simon has worked with wildlife for over two decades, and Jill for almost a decade, we can still improve our practices.
But here’s the thing about learning: It happens through respectful, engaging conversation. These are our beliefs and values and while we obviously have no issue with calling out a wrong as we see it, we have no interest in making a disagreement personal. Bullying and online shaming, we feel, alienates, no matter how virtuous a position might be. A thoughtful conversation and fact-based education have long proved to be the best tools to create enduring change.
At the end of the day, photography ethics are important, but not the most pressing issue facing wildlife or the environment or the world. That doesn’t mean it’s an issue that should be ignored or taken lightly, but it does mean we should tone down the vitriol in the debate. Alienating those we must work together with to enable progress on the most pressing issues of our time only dilutes the voice of the animals and wild spaces that do not have one.
Now, more than ever, we need to work together. And in the doing, if we can present ourselves – and our opinions, values and ethics – as imperfect works-in-progress, we might be able to help make a difference on all levels for the issues we each care about. Only then will we truly create a better world for all life.