Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Cathy Seaver, a commercial photographer in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She works primarily for Cull Group shooting product, corporate headshots, and other client needs. In her off time, Cathy enjoys getting out into nature to shoot what she sees around her. She is also an avid horseback rider, enjoying her time in the saddle on trails and playing around with a bit of dressage. Check out her work on Instagram.
In November I came across an activity I hadn’t encountered before. While I wasn’t entirely comfortable with what I was seeing, I also wasn’t dead set against it. After some feedback from friends, much contemplation, and a bit of research, I’ve decided that as photographers shooting wildlife we are there to observe — not alter — our interactions in nature.
I was on my second trip to the Muskegon Wastewater Treatment Plant, a known bird migration spot in Michigan, to photograph an irruption of Snowy Owls that had been reported. When I arrived there were several other photographers, one of them with about a dozen live mice to bait the owls. One owl, in particular, was hunting the mice as he threw them, one at a time, onto the little-traveled roadway. I watched this owl eat as many as five mice while I was there. Normally these owls would hunt other birds that migrate through the area, such as ducks and Snow Buntings. They may also eat the occasional rabbit or wild mouse. There was plenty of prey available for the owls to hunt naturally.
Despite being uncomfortable with the baiting, I shot several frames of the owl hunting the bait. That is why I was there, to take photos. Being a non-confrontational person, I did not express my concerns to the other photographers nor to the person baiting. After all, I keep feeders full of seed on my porch all year long and sometimes photograph the birds that feed there. Is that baiting?
When I posted my photos on social media, it was almost immediately noticed by a friend that the mice being hunted were white, not field mice. Thus the conversation, and my more concrete position on baiting, began.
Issues with Baiting
- Creates a dependency on humans for food
- Causes wild animals to lose their fear of humans
- Encourages birds to go into roadways and toward cars
- Prey may be fed that is not normally in the diet
- Possible introduction of pathogens, such as salmonella, and parasites to the population
- Inconsistent food source
Conclusion and Tips
Choosing to shoot if you come upon wildlife baiting is a completely personal decision. I have decided that I will not shoot again if I’m in that position. The risk to the animals is too great for me to be a complicit observer in such a situation. I should note that I did call the DNR to ask questions and report the activity. While baiting is not illegal in Michigan, it is also not encouraged. It does nothing to support the birds that travel thousands of miles in migration.
If you’d like to shoot wildlife, here are my suggestions:
- Bring the longest lens you have so you can keep distance between you and the animal you are shooting. I was shooting with my 400mm lens and wish I had longer.
- Give yourself plenty of time and be patient. It is best to observe with as little interaction as possible.
- Do a little research before heading out. Know likely times that animals will be moving through and learn their habits, such as night hunting.
- Keep your shutter speed as fast as possible and don’t be afraid to shoot at a high ISO.
- Animals move fast, so shoot many frames in quick succession. You’ll end up with some blurry photos, so you’ll be happy when you’ve got some in focus.