CULTURE & ARTS
12/02/2015 10:19 am ET

Your Perfect Instagram Shot Might End Up Killing A Snowy Owl

Getting too close to the gorgeous birds can fatally freak them out.

As snowy owls begin to migrate south from the Arctic this winter, an Ohio wildlife rehabilitator is warning photographers that they shouldn’t get too close in an attempt to get the perfect shot.

“The wild animal doesn’t know you just want to see it,” Heather Tuttle, manager at Back to the Wild in Castalia, Ohio, told The Huffington Post. “all they see is this large predatory animal that’s getting too close for comfort.”

A snowy owl at Back to the Wild wildlife sanctuary in Castalia, Ohio.
Back to the Wild/Facebook
A snowy owl at Back to the Wild wildlife sanctuary in Castalia, Ohio.

Pursuing a wild animal for a photo op is never a good idea, Tuttle said, but it poses a particular danger for snowy owls that have just migrated from the Arctic tundra.

Because the birds have just completed a long flight, she said, many are short on energy. If a person frightens the bird away, the animal may spend all of its remaining energy fleeing, having little left for necessary hunting.

“We get them in and they’re just starved almost completely,” Tuttle said.

While most snowy owls remain in the Arctic year-round, occasionally some owls will head south during the winter in what’s known as an “irruption.” But there’s no consistent way to predict how many owls may head south in a given year, according to Andrew Farnsworth, Cornell Lab of Ornithology research associate and project leader for migration forecaster BirdCast.

“In the past, there has been some ability to suggest which years might be big irruptions by looking at the timing of previous years' irruptions and considering the rodent populations and breeding success of the species,” Farnsworth told HuffPost in an email.

This year, Farnsworth said, the Midwest is seeing particularly high snowy owl numbers, though there have also been news reports of the birds in the Northeast.

But he explained there are numerous factors that influence the irruptions, including fluctuating rodent populations that may push the birds southward to search for food, as well as climate changes in the Arctic that can change the birds’ winter behavior. He also noted that not all birds show up weak and starving -- many arrive in perfectly healthy condition. That's partially because of natural variation between individual birds, as well as the food resources in the birds' homes and the different reasons they migrated in the first place. 

A snowy owl at Back to the Wild in Castalia, Ohio.
Back to the Wild/Facebook
A snowy owl at Back to the Wild in Castalia, Ohio.

Last year, Back to the Wild took in about three snowy owls that were starved so badly the sanctuary was unable to save them, Tuttle said. Of course, when someone brings in a starving owl — usually because they’ve found the bird collapsed in their yard — it’s impossible to say exactly what led up to the starvation, though other wildlife experts have also noted the threat that photographers and birdwatchers can pose.

Of course, it's possible to photograph a snowy owl responsibly. If you spot an owl at a distance where the bird seems comfortable, just “don’t get any closer,” Tuttle said. If the owl starts to stiffen up, or starts looking around, freeze and then move back slowly.

If you’re serious about getting good shots of the beautiful birds, Tuttle said, invest in a camera with a good zoom feature. Problems arise when people with cameras with minimal zoom -- like those found on many smartphones -- find themselves having to get physically closer to get a decent shot.

She also said that people would be doing the birds a favor if they refrained from posting the locations of owls online, as the sheer number of people that show up can also be highly stressful for the birds.

“We see this all the time,” she said. “When somebody spots a snowy owl, you’re having 20, 30, 40 people show up.”'

Contact the author at Hilary.Hanson@huffingtonpost.com

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