A snowy owl strikes a pose. Credit: Courtesy of Bob Duchesne

Yes, it’s true. As reported in the Bangor Daily News on Monday, some social media groups are refusing to publish snowy owl photos. This is a good policy.

It’s partly because a few people encroach too closely to get the perfect shot, stressing the owls. Some may even encourage or provoke a bird into flight. More importantly, snowy owls are just too sensitive, for reasons that are not always obvious.

Group moderators could have decided to allow photos but not locations, thus limiting the amount of human contact an owl might have to endure. Yet, the problem runs deeper. Some birds — snowy owls, in particular — are just too sexy for their own good.

They pose in exposed places, inadvertently offering themselves up for glamorous photos. Their large size and ghostly color increase their attractiveness. Those piercing yellow eyes mesmerize. Who could be blamed for wanting the perfect, breathtaking photo?

Me. And maybe you. If the opportunity arises, it’s good to know how you can avoid hurting the owl.

An owl active in daylight is already stressed. If you spot one of our local owls during the day, it’s because it’s too hungry to wait for nightfall. Northern owls coming down from the land of the midnight sun are more accustomed to hunting in daylight, but they’re not accustomed to our crows.

Any owl that stirs after dawn risks attracting an angry mob. Even if an owl doesn’t seem bothered by people, it may have to expend energy defending itself from crows if forced into flight.

Worse, snowy owls are not accustomed to trees. Maine’s year-round owls fly deep into the forest when harassed by crows. Snowy owls breed on the treeless tundra and it wouldn’t occur to them to duck into a maple tree. Thus, the best owl photo is one taken from a distance, with a big lens or superzoom.

Even then, it’s important to watch for signs of nervousness. An owl should be scanning for prey. If it’s watching you instead, you’re too close. And you’re too close even if you’re unknowingly scaring off the owl’s potential meal. Snowy owls can spot a lemming or field mouse up to a mile away.

Location matters. Snowy owls prefer high perches in open places. In southern Maine, they are regularly found on rooftops, where there are likely to be people around. Snowy owls wintering on coastal mountaintops and in rural farm fields are less accustomed to human comings and goings. They can become skittish, even hundreds of yards away. Best to stay distant from York County owls, and very distant from Hancock County owls.

Know this: birds watch us as much as we watch them. Most often, they watch for signs that we might be a threat. Backyard birds watch for signs that we might fill the feeder. All the chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers in my backyard are so used to me that they notice but scarcely care when I’m around. Robins and blue jays are more suspicious, but relax quickly when they realize it’s just me.

Now imagine some northern species visiting Maine. They may never have seen a human before. Flocking birds can be surprisingly tame. Bohemian and cedar waxwings, pine grosbeaks, common redpolls and snow buntings are quite tolerant of people nearby.

Solitary raptors aren’t. Hawks and owls will flush long before smaller birds will. For some, it may be a genetic trait. Humans have killed raptors for centuries, fearing predation around the chicken coop. I don’t doubt that some raptors flinch at the sight of a harmless human, the same way a human might flinch at the sight of a harmless snake. All of us are descended from ancestors who were more cautious than their neighbors.

So kudos to the social media moderators, who decided to take a cautious approach to protect sexy birds.

I belong to two Facebook groups that are particularly noteworthy: Maine Birds and Maine Wildlife. I’m sure they admire great nature photos. That’s why the groups exist. They just don’t want to be in the position of encouraging harassment of snowy owls in search of the perfect shot.

Now, true confession: I can neither brag nor apologize for today’s close-up photo of a snowy owl. It was taken 10 years ago in Newfoundland. This flightless male owl was within a spacious outdoor pen at a rehab facility, visited by scores of people per day. His reaction to photographers was a yawn and bored indifference. Easiest snowy owl photo ever.

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Bob Duchesne, Good Birding

Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at duchesne@midmaine.com.