Yesterday, October 30, a Great Horned Owl was found roosting at nearly tree-top level in an oak at the southwest corner of Evodia Field (where the bird feeders are) in the the Central Park Ramble.
I issued a Manhattan Bird Alert (follow @BirdCentralPark on Twitter) as soon as I saw the owl, but clearly many before me had seen it and not done so. That’s a shame. Nevertheless, a lot of people who would have otherwise missed seeing this infrequent Central Park visitor were able to hurry to the Ramble in the roughly 50 minutes of daylight remaining and see it.
Based on the questions I received on Twitter, some simply did not know that it was OK to issue a bird alert involving an owl. It is — at least on my service, which has over the years helped birders observe many owls, including Barred Owl in April of this year, Long-eared Owl in December 2016, and Eastern Screech-Owl in October 2016. Some other listservs and discussion groups still try to restrict such information, a quaint policy in 2017 given the popularity of sites (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc.) on which information can be disseminated freely.
Others wondered if it was ethical to report owls publicly. I would argue that it is almost always fine to do so at public locations in Manhattan. Of course “ethics” is a social construct, one that varies widely among people and times. Decide for yourself. But if you adopt a point of view simply because you see it written somewhere or hear it told to you, you are not doing your own thinking.
We report hundreds of other bird species, and sometimes they draw large crowds. Think back to last spring’s Cattle Egret or Least Bittern. Surely these birds were aware of increased human presence. Yet no one would fault the people who issued alerts on them. The birds lived on just fine, with the former remaining four weeks in a urban area dense with people and machinery.
You cannot reasonably argue that yesterday’s Great Horned Owl, resting nearly hidden over 60 feet above the ground, was bothered by a group of people quietly standing still and looking up at it. People would have been passing by the area all day anyway. The owl was partially obstructed from any vantage point, and it appeared to be looking away from the viewers.
Owls deal with more proximate annoyances nearly every day as they roost — other birds (Blue Jays, crows, even hawks) getting right in their faces, screeching loudly and mobbing them. That is usually how we humans find roosting owls, and how yesterday’s Great Horned Owl was found.
Some worry that non-birders or bird photographers will behave badly in the presence of an owl, but I have never seen this happen in Central Park. A large group of viewers, with mobile cameras ready to record any malicious deeds, is actually a source of safety for both people and owls. Park Rangers often are deployed to monitor owls and keep viewers in line, too.
But aren’t owls rare and endangered? No, not the ones we get in Central Park. They may be rare locally (in the park), but broadly — even just in New York State — they are doing fine, and are rated by the IUCN as populations of “least worry.”
But they rest during the day — doesn’t this make them special? Yes, it is an uncommon trait, but nighthawks and nightjars also are nocturnal, and no one seems to mind that these roosting birds (e.g., Common Nighthawk, Eastern Whip-poor-will, and Chuck-will’s-widow) are reported and viewed by large groups.
And why should they mind? Again, these are not endangered species, and a gathering of humans observing them is the least of their problems. They get pushed around by both mammals and other birds during the day, and sometimes they fly off and rest somewhere else. Same with owls. That’s life for a nocturnal bird.
The issue of nesting owls is more complicated and sensitive, but Central Park does not have any.
If you accept that even “ethical” birders might occasionally flush a flock of Chipping Sparrows feeding on a lawn, then why all the fuss over respectful birders who sometimes merely draw the attention of roosting owls?
Yet many birders carry a double standard — one for owls and another for all other birds.
On top of this they add hypocrisy. They don’t believe in publicly reporting owls because they say the number of viewers should be minimized, but they themselves will race out to see any owl that they learn of publicly or privately. And once they see it, they call or text their friends to pass along the news.
This process has a number of problems, among them: it’s slow, and it’s not fair — many people get left out of the loop.
Everyone wants to see owls, even people who otherwise do not go birding. Owls are fascinating and mysterious, and seeing them in Manhattan is a rare treat, one that should not be just for the select few. Think about how glad you were the last time you got to see one. With little or no detriment to the owls, the benefits and costs are much the same as for birding in general.
Manhattan Bird Alert wants to help you see your next owl. For this to happen, owl finders need to report promptly. Many will thank you for your tweet, even if a few curmudgeons sniff at it. If you would rather report anonymously, just send @BirdCentralPark a DM (direct message) on Twitter or email me privately. If you prefer to post on eBird directly from the field, that works, too — alerts are issued almost instantly and I monitor them and will relay them.
November is the best month for Manhattan owling. Let’s have a good one!