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Are birdwatchers to blame for owl's death at Forest Lawn?

No one knows yet what killed the great horned owl at Forest Lawn Cemetery.

A bird watcher found the owl beneath a tree on Friday with no obvious signs of trauma, so it does not appear to have died in the claws of a hawk or other predator.

Could it have eaten a poisoned rat? Did toxins around the Scajaquada Creek cleanup project kill it? Or did it just die of natural causes?

Some wonder if stress killed the owl. Prompted by social media reports, birders and photographers have shown up in recent weeks at the cemetery looking for a pair of owls.

"Photographing owls and sharing their location on social media can lead to serious problems for these birds," said Tom Kerr, a naturalist with the Buffalo Audubon Society.

Forest Lawn is a popular spot in the region for birdwatchers. Looking for and sharing information on some species – like songbirds – is usually OK.

But owls are different, Kerr said. They are nocturnal predators and rely on their natural camouflage for protection during their daytime resting period.

"These birds need to spend their day sleeping and avoiding predators," Kerr said. "They usually will only take off from their daytime roost as a last resort. Other birds, including crows and hawks will harass them if they are found during the day."

This is the time of year when owls start to get busy nesting and breeding. Their nesting season is usually complete by the end of April.

A recent sighting of a pair of great horned owls over the last month or so, though, brought increased attention on social media and more photographers.

"If you stayed there all day, you would probably see a lot of people coming and going," said Kate Gorman of Buffalo, who found the dead owl.

Gorman spent two decades doing environmental work in California before recently moving home to Buffalo. She first noticed the owl pair about a week or two ago.

When she returned Friday, Gorman wasn't prepared for what she found.

"I just came upon the body and it was so shocking," Gorman said. "It was basically laying at the foot of the tree as if it just fell out of the tree."

She said there was "no evidence of any pecking or loose feathers." The owl's eyes were open and there was "a little blood" coming from its beak.

"I was actually crying because I was a little bit upset," she said.

Gorman took some pictures of the owl where it lay, then wrapped it in a scarf and brought it to environmental biologists for examination.

Although it was nearly two feet long, Gorman said its body was light.

Forest Lawn's President Joseph P. Dispenza said Gorman alerted staff at the cemetery over the weekend of her findings and intent to turn it over to environmental officials.

Dispenza said some Forest Lawn staff knew anecdotally of owl sightings on the grounds but did not make a big deal of it.

"It's not something we try to leverage," Dispenza said.

He said Forest Lawn may boast nature and wildlife on its grounds as a whole but it doesn't give away specific locations on its grounds of owls, deer, turkeys, foxes or any other wildlife.

"We're very quick to lock it down because everyone will descend upon them," Dispenza said.

He also pointed out the cemetery uses no poisons or pesticides on its grounds.

Kerr said great horned owls have roosted at Forest Lawn for years, but have been observed on and off since 2011.

In the case of these great horned owls, it appeared word was getting out over the last month or so, and more and more people were showing up.

"I saw this pair of great horned owls early in January," Kerr said. "There were a handful of photographers standing by the tree they were roosting in. I took a look with my binoculars from the road and left. It is best to observe owls from as far away as possible."

Kerr said it's likely people may not recognize signs of stress in owls.

"If the owl is awake and staring you down, that is the first sign that the owl feels threatened," Kerr said. "Unfortunately, an owl looking right at the camera also makes a very nice looking photograph."

He added: "People searching for these owls also may not realize that they are just one of dozens of people visiting their roosting sites throughout the day, and each 15-minute visit adds to the stress these birds are feeling. When someone finds an owl, obviously it is very exciting, but it is in that bird's best interest to keep its location a secret."

Some other tips from the Buffalo Audubon Society:

  • Observe owls from as far away as possible.
  • Never stand directly below them.
  • If owls are awake and staring at you, leave immediately.
  • Give them as much peace and quiet as possible.

Kerr said the state Department of Environmental Conservation is looking into the cause of death of the owl.

Autopsy results are expected to take up to two weeks to complete.

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