April Fool's Day comes early: The incredible jumping owl
March 23/24: Four national newspapers publish fishy photos of a wild Tawny Owl out "hunting"
When I first saw these photos going up on Flickr in mid-March I didn't have a moment's doubt about how they were obtained — two guys going out with a tame owl and getting it to spread its wings by jiggling the hand, and in a couple of pics by chucking it into the air. The captions were innocent enough — in many cases simply "Tawny Owl - the hunter". Several photos looked as though they'd been cropped so that you couldn't see what the owl was, or had been, standing on. It was fairly obvious from what the owl was doing that this was a hand.
The strip below shows some more of the photos in this set. Apart from the flight position on the extreme left, all show the owl in postures that would only be expected from an owl that's being made to perform in this way by a handler. The jumping photo to the right of the text is a completely unnatural posture you'd never see with a wild owl of any species.
More photos taken on the March 2009 photoshoot. This and another owl set taken by the photographer can be seen on Flickr here.
Next: the photos appear in the newspapers . . but now there's a story
So imagine my surprise when my Google Alerts folder began to fill with links to national newspaper articles about the owl. These featured a couple of the more striking photos ... and described them as unique shots of a wild Tawny Owl out hunting!
The Daily Telegraph (online, 23 March 2009) told the story thus:
<< Photographer captures rare shot of an owl leaping into the air
This is the moment a nature photographer caught a rare glimpse of an owl leaping into the air before taking flight to look for prey. . . . [The photographer] captured the display on camera as the owl hurled itself vertically into the sky from a fence post. . . . [he] spotted the tawny owl on a nature trail near his home and says the image is a "once in a lifetime" shot.
The picture will now be used by the National Trust as part of an exhibition of [the photographer's] work including photos of peregrines, deer and fox.
[The photographer] said: "It was just one of those very rare moments when you capture the essence of a beautiful creature. . . . The owl was stunning – powerful and elegant. I managed to catch the moment it took off which is rare because owls are fairly elusive." >>
No doubt pleased by the national publicity his photos were receiving, on 24 March the photographer posted this montage of the coverage on Flickr. Four major papers carried the story — Daily Telegraph, Guardian, Daily Mail, and Mirror. The Telegraph page is not shown in the montage.
The Daily Mail (Mail Online) 24 March spun a similar tale:
<< Pictured: A tawny owl hovers in the air for a split second before swooping down on its prey
Its launch pad was an old fence post. And the countdown lasted only as long as it took to spot lunch scampering nearby. Within seconds, this hungry tawny owl was on the way up, launching itself vertically into the air like a Harrier jump jet. Then there was a split second of hovering, gathering its wings in close, before spreading them wide and swooping away in pursuit of its prey.
[Photo caption] "Jump jet: A tawny owl's prey doesn't stand a chance after being spotted by the bird a split second before it swooped"
[The photographer says:] "It was just one of those very rare moments when you capture the essence of a beautiful creature." >>
I expressed my doubts on three occasions in the comments box on the Mail Online's page for the feature, but my comments somehow failed to appear. I've not been able to locate the Guardian and Mirror stories online.
So, what's the evidence that the story told with these photos is a load of bull?
The newspapers tell us that these are "unique ... rare ... once in a lifetime" shots of a Tawny Owl launching itself into the air just before swooping to catch its prey. The two articles quoted above don't actually use the word "wild", but readers are clearly given to understand that the owl is wild from descriptions such as "[the photographer] spotted the tawny owl on a nature trail near his home ..."
Here's why I don't believe this for one minute, and the reasons for believing that the owl is a captive bird.
1. A general impression, which would be obvious to anyone familiar with these owls, that this is a tame bird taken out on the hand.
2. The idea that an owl should advertise its presence to prey by prancing around on a fence post is absurd.
3. Owl do not launch themselves at prey by first leaping up into the air. Indeed they never take off by leaping vertically upwards. In a swoop on prey a Tawny Owl drops from a perch in a manoeuver that varies from a steepish descent to a more or less vertical drop. (To see how a real wild owl launches herself into the air, click here for a photo sequence showing an owl leaving a nest box. Click back button to return)
4. The implausibility of a tawny hunting at this time of day. Tawny Owls are nocturnal hunters, though in the breeding season they will sometimes continue to hunt for an hour or so after dawn if there are hungry chicks to be fed. These photos appear to have been taken in evening sunlight, which is the least likely time to find a tawny hunting as they are almost invariably at roost at this time.
5. The damage to the ends of the primaries and tail feathers is very characteristic of owls kept in mesh-covered cages. Wild owls do not show this type of feather damage. The damage is caused when the owl clings to the mesh and props itself up by pressing its wings and tail against the mesh, bending or breaking the feather tips. This is strong evidence that the owl is a captive. Damaged feather tips are shown in the left photo below.
6. Apart from the flying pic, none of the behaviour and postures shown are characteristic of a wild owl. They are all characteristic of an owl that is with a handler.
7. There are no photos of the owl catching its prey, or flying away, or perched afterwards.
8. All photos appear to have been cropped beneath the owl so that one cannot see what it is standing on, or the perch it has just left. The suspicion has to be that this is because the "perch" is a hand, and that the hand is being "jiggled", or in the jumping photo withdrawn completely, to make the owl open its wings.
9. Finally, the photographer appears to have photographed this "wild" owl before. He posted a set of six close-up portraits of a Tawny Owl on Flickr between July 2007 and February 2008, labelling them simply as "Tawny owl" or "Tawny owl near Plymouth". Careful examination suggests that they are the same owl as we see in the March 2009 shots. See four-face comparison at right below.
Watch 4-min video with slow motion shots of owls taking off and hunting
Damage to the tips of primary and tail feathers (arrowed) is characteristic of an owl that is kept in a cage. You don't see this on wild owls. This is the "jumping" owl in flight. (Click for large version)
The same owl photographed in 2007 and 2009? These comparisons do little to suggest that they're different. (Click for large version)
Why object? Isn't this all harmless fun?
Well, first there's the obvious objection that the photographer has obtained nationwide coverage for his photos by spinning a yarn, and one assumes being paid for it. The National Trust is a very prominent body in the UK, with an increasing role in nature conservation, and it will be highly regrettable if it lends its considerable weight to these pictures by exhibiting them as genuine photos of a wild owl hunting. They're far from being rare or unique — anyone with a tame owl could go out and get similar pictures in a few minutes!
But what I find really objectionable is that we simply don't need more nonsense about these not very well known birds. If unchallenged, photographs like this will be shown on many websites and, heaven help us, may even find their way into books on owls. The general public, including schoolchildren who use such web pictures for projects, will believe that this is how owls hunt. It's a dismal prospect and one that we, and owls, can do without.
Last, but certainly not least, this photo of the jumping owl posted by the photographer on Flickr on 15 March carries embarrassing evidence that the newspaper stories are a fairy tale. (Click pic for large version)
Why? His own caption here reads simply:
Tawny owl - a leap of surprise
A leap of . . surprise ? Well, as I've said, most likely because someone chucked the owl into the air or suddenly dropped their hand, leaving the owl unsupported in mid-air with its legs stretched down. Hunting? My a---. The caption gives it all away.
Postscript 29 March: More once-in-a-lifetime shots posted on Flickr
Four more photos taken during this owl fun shoot were posted by the photographer yesterday, including another unique "jump jet" photo (right). As the owl is looking upward in this shot (and we all know that mice don't live in the sky), maybe this time it was rocketing up, missiles primed, to intercept an overflying bird. Or maybe it was just having fun on an abandoned trampoline. Who knows?
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