Birding and Photography Ethics

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Great Horned Owl Nestlings
The park rangers were kind enough to put of an orange fence around this tree to keep
people at a safe distance. If you follow signs and barriers, you are likely not going to cause harm.

I've been an avid photographer for just about all this millennium, but I only became significantly interested in birding and wildlife photography after I received my 400mm lens and moved to Florida. I spent my early months here driving around wildlife loops and photographing whatever birds I saw. Eventually, I wanted to photograph more diversity of birds and wildlife, so I became involved with a local Audubon Society.  I'm very thankful that I learned my birding and wildlife photography ethics from birders and conscientious wildlife photographers.

Marl Bed Flats
Black-Necked Stilt in Distraction Display
These kinds of displays are a good sign that you're close enough to a nest or young to cause stress.Best behavior is to give the bird more distance.

It wasn't long before I began to notice that there is often a kind of stigma attached to being a photographer. There are enough photographers out there who do irresponsible things to get their photos that it's given all of us somewhat of a bad name.  However, over time I've come to believe that the reputation is largely unfounded.  For all the irresponsible photographers out there, there are many others that follow impeccable birding ethics. On the other hand, I've seen many birders violate those ethics. I've seen them approach birds too closely to document a rare bird and even trample through sensitive habitat to flush a bird into view. I suspect it's time to put the stereotypes to rest.

Canal St.
Lark Sparrow with Bird Seed
I found out after I took this shot that someone had scattered bird seed to keep this rare Florida Sparrow from leaving.The seed was cast right by the road (!) and in full view of the many raptors in the area,
like American Kestrels, 
Merlin, and Sharp-shinned Hawks.  Really?????

My birding ethics are intended to ensure that I cause no intentional or unintentional harmful impact on the birds I love to see and photograph. I sincerely doubt that it's possible to be in nature without having at least some impact.  Even if you're just walking through a public park on a paved trail, you are going to walk by birds and other wildlife. They will take notice of you and adjust their behavior accordingly.  They may fly away, or they may even pop into view to attract your attention and distract you from their nearby nest.  There's no way to avoid this. However, we can minimize this impact and ensure that we do nothing that may be harmful to them.

Merritt Island NWR
Florida Scrub Jay
Tourists and birders love to feed these birds peanuts because they can be so tame, but the reality is that feeding them disrupts their breeding cycle.  They can end up with young hatched too soon, before there are enough bugs around soft enough for the young to eat. Please don't feed them.

There are several ways we can cause a harm. We can cause birds to expend energy they need for nest building or migration. We can cause them to put themselves in harm's way (more visible to predators and other dangers). We can cause birds to be dependent on human behavior. We can even unintentionally cause birds to abandon their nests and breeding grounds or vacate suitable habitat. My goal is to leave all birding experiences with a clear conscience that I've left the birds and their habitat unharmed and untampered with.

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Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
A rarity here in Florida, so many people come out to see them.  One birder constantly approached this birdtoo closely, causing it to fly about 20-30 feet down the path.  She did this repeatedly.  After about 3-4 times,I encouraged her that if she stayed a little farther away, both she and the bird would have a more pleasant time.

So I thought it would be good for me to share my birding and photography ethics.  I share this publicly for at least two reasons.  First, others may have valuable insights to contribute to what I have shared here, so I hope to learn from each of you.  Second, perhaps by sharing my ethics others might be encouraged to act differently in nature.  So here goes:

Mullet Lake Park
Le Conte's Sparrow
A Florida rarity and a secretive bird as well.  So these birds become the object of significant recording playback.
  1. Being in nature is its own reward.  An important corollary: a photo or a sighting should never take precedent over the well-being of wildlife. 
  2. Respect barriers, follow all laws, and obey signage.  Generally speaking they are there for a reason. For instance, Florida Scrub Jays are endangered, and it is illegal to feed them.  Most parks and refuges that have Scrub Jays put up signs prohibiting feeding them.  This doesn't stop many from feeding them peanuts, and it's been shown that feeding Scrub Jays can potentially cause a significant amount of harm.
  3. Don't approach birds too closely.  You can always tell when you have--the bird flies away or displays some sort of agitated behavior. This happens, but then if you continue to do this repeatedly, you may be chasing the bird out of its natural habitat and into harm's way. For instance, when doing work for our Florida Breeding bird atlas, I'm constantly looking for breeding evidence. Last summer I saw some Black-necked Stilts and shortly afterwards I had a parent flying circles around me and calling.  It was using a distraction display to keep me away from its chicks. This allowed me to confirm breeding of this species in that block. At that point I had a choice. I could go off searching for the chicks, but this would cause a great deal of anxiety to the parents and expose their young to predators. Or I could leave and let the bird calm down and return to its young. I would love to have photographed the chicks, but I had what I needed to confirm breeding in that block, so I left the birds alone.
  4. Avoid excessive use of bird calls. For me, this applies to pishing as well.  Pishing works, as I understand it, because it sounds like the scolding and alarm calls of other birds like Tufted Titmice. This causes warblers and other birds to investigate.  Recorded bird calls generally attract only the species of bird you're playing. In some ways, this can be seen as less invasive. However, some people play screech owl calls to attract many species within earshot of the call. This can cause significant aggravation.  I generally follow David Sibley's advice here (the comments are also useful on Sibley's site) on using bird calls. Conservative use of pishing and recordings are likely not harmful, but over-use can have detrimental effects.
  5. Conservative use of flash.  Personally, I never use flash, though my reasoning is only partly ethical. I just don't like the look of flash, especially in birds with large eyes..  However, I also have seen flash cause birds to flinch and fly away.  There are good birders on both sides of the ethical debate here.  I fully respect those who use flash responsibly. However, I do feel strongly about flashing owls, especially at night.
  6. Never bait birds. I know some photographers set out bait to attract hawks and other birds so that they will come closer for better photos. I also know some birders set out bird seed to attract birds out into the open to be seen or to keep them at their wintering grounds longer.  This can expose them to predators, so I don't do it. In fact, I don't even have feeders (save a hummingbird feeder) because I don't want birds to become dependent on me. I'd much rather go out and find birds in nature than attract them to my home.  Now let me be clear that I don't think using feeders is unethical.  However, I know I will not keep them filled, so I don't use them at all. And as an aside, if you use hummingbird feeders, lose the red dye. It does no good, and it may even cause some harm.  Just make sure you have a red feeder.
  7. Never startle a bird to give you an action shot.  I've even heard of people throwing rocks towards birds to get them to fly. Thankfully, I've never seen anyone do anything quite this drastic.
    1. Never linger around a nesting site or nestlings and fledglings. This can cause a great deal of stress on the parents. If they are defending the nest from you, they may be alerting predators to where their nest is located.
    2. I don't reveal specific locations of bird nests. Unfortunately, some birders and photographers want to see them, and they can approach the nest too closely.  For me, the risk is too great, so I don't share nest locations any more except to those volunteering for our Florida Breeding Bird Atlas.
    3. Take extra care with groups. I like birding in groups, but when groups become large, I become more conservative.  There's more potential for the actions of a large group to be perceived as threatening, and it's more likely that a group of people will cause damage to habitat.  I once came upon a group of about 25 birders surrounding a tree. They were on a field trip with the Space Coast Birding Festival, and the team leader was pishing very loudly and constantly. They had a glimpse of what they were pretty sure was a Great Horned Owl, but they wanted to be sure, and they wanted the people in their group to see the owl.  Just a few days earlier I'd heard a male and female calling in that location.  I'm quite confident they were harassing the owl, and it's quite possible they were disturbing a nest site.  It really ticks me off when this happens at all, but even more so in groups. Not only might it have been harmful, but it teaches bad behavior to others.
    This is perhaps not an exhaustive list, and I'd welcome the insights of others on these ethical principles.  But I thought 10 was a good number (I resisted the temptation to call this my 10 commandments of birding ethics).  These principles help me feel confident that my actions will cause no harm and preserve good birding locations for future birding generations.


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