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Bird Watching Ethics: Ethical Practices to Keep in Mind For Your Next Bird Watching Trip

Bird Watching Ethics 101


With over 7 billion people in the world, it's no wonder that there are dozens of lists available on the best ways to reduce impact on wildlife and the environments on which they depend. We've compiled a list of considerations for your next outing - be sure to share this information with others on your trip as well! 


For the birds:

Keep your distance. 

  • If an animal changes its behavior or begins using a warning call as you or your equipment get closer, you're affecting that animal in a potentially negative manner. 
  • Every bird has what's called a "flush distance." Some birds are more skittish than others (e.g., larger birds take longer to take off in flight thus will flush sooner than smaller birds), and this distance will change if the flush occurs during breeding season. 
  • Only watch from a distance close enough where the animal acts as if you weren't there. 

While birding at Seabeck, Washington, where dozens of Bald Eagles were swooping down to the shore for fish in the waning tide, one person kept moving their camera further and further out into the mudflat to get a "closer shot." In doing so, the birds also continued to move further out. Unfortunately, the people who remained at the shore could no longer get a good look at the birds' goings on. Don't be "that" person.

Tidal flats of Seabeck, Washington

Sparingly use audio or visual cues to attract birds, and only use them when appropriate. 

  • Bird audio playbacks, found on nearly every smartphone birding app these days, is a helpful identification tool. It's also useful if you want to draw birds in for a closer look; but, be conscientious of what you're attracting and for how long you attract the bird. 
  • Under no circumstances should you use cues to attract sensitive, threatened, or endangered species. Leave this work up to the researchers working to conserve the species and their populations.
  • If you do use playbacks, make sure to use them sparingly. As soon as you see or hear any birds reacting to the audio, stop playback immediately. The bird is attracted to the sound because they are presumably defending their territory - that's time and energy that individual is spending on you instead of defending against actual competitors or predators. 

Keep feeders well-maintained and clean.

  • If you have a feeder, be sure to maintain it and keep it clean. This means replacing seed often and removing any molded seed. If you have a water dish, replace water often to prevent algae and larval buildup.
  • Be sure the feeder location is situated to avoid predators, such as domestic cats. Move feeders away from bushes or other locations where predators can hide in wait for a bird to land. In addition, see if you can place the feeder at a higher vantage point, away from the ground.
  • Even if you feed the birds at your home, be sure to continue maintaining your distance - these are still wild animals! Habituating animals of any kind to human presence can be dangerous for that animal if it is considered a nuisance by someone else. Not only this, wild animals carry all sorts of mites and diseases, so it's for your safety (and if you have pets, for theirs as well) that you avoid contact. This same rule applies if you see a wild bird following you for food while hiking or birding. I promise, they're not starving. If they are, your ham and cheese sandwich won't save them.

To post or not to post?

  • Many people are so connected to social media and reporting apps that it seems almost second nature to post where you are and what you're seeing. Assess whether you should post the exact location of wildlife; be especially conscientious of this when viewing rare or sensitive species.
  • The above rule applies to nests of any kind. If the nest is in a location easily accessible by people, it might be better to keep the exact location to yourself, as excess disturbances caused by human presence has the potential to negatively impact the success of that nest. 

Don't touch the birds. 

  • This may seem self-explanatory, yet I've seen more people attempt to or successfully touch or handle birds than I'd like to admit. 
  • If you find an injured bird, contact a wildlife rehabilitator for further instructions and assistance.
  • If you find a baby bird, there are a handful of considerations you must take into account - reference this article by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for more guidance.
  • Otherwise, leave the handling to the experts who are trained to handle birds, and know when handling is appropriate.

For the habitat:

Leave everything as you found it. 

  • This one is pretty self-explanatory. Don't start landscaping the area just to get your perfect picture or to attract a bird to a particular place. This subject is somewhat controversial, as some have argued that one rock out of place won't mess up the order of things. While that may be true, what's the threshold for "too many" rocks moved? My general rule is that if I can put it back the way I found it, it's OK. You can't unbreak a tree branch or re-attach a flower.

Don't damage or impact habitat.

  • Watch where you're birding and don't tread into sensitive habitat, nesting habitat, or off-trail locations that indicate not to do so. This same rule applies to where your blind and equipment are placed. This is for your safety as well as the safety of the creatures that live there and the habitats on which they depend.

While birding in Wales, we were the unfortunate witnesses of puffin burrows being collapsed after a visitor, about 20 minutes after receiving a briefing about staying on the trails, proceeded to stick their backpack and tripod off the trail into burrow-laden habitat. Doing so has the potential to kill or maim young that have not yet fledged.

Wildflower hills of Skomer Island, Wales

For others around you:

Follow any laws, rules, or regulations regarding site or land access.

  • Respect people's private property, and any other regulations pertaining to entering a piece of land. Again, this is for your safety!
  • Follow the rules associated with the land you are on. This may include access times, payment requirements, use allowances (e.g., some refuges don't allow bike-riding or running), group stipulations, and more.

Minimize noise impact.

  • Make sure to keep noise to a minimum to avoid disturbing wildlife and others who may be watching wildlife. This includes talking and electronics use, especially loud ringtones or playing music.

Be respectful of the impact your animal might have on the environment or someone's experience.

  • I fully acknowledge this is a sensitive subject - people love their dogs! I grew up with a lab-pointer mix who ached to jump in every body of water and "pointed" at anything outside that moved, and she was my everything. But, keep in mind that some places have specific regulations against allowing dogs to access certain areas. The research done on the subject of how dogs affect bird nesting success is quite extensive, and should be considered before you bring your pup on your next birding trip. 

Be respectful of others' experiences.

  • Gauge other people's responses to your presence. Some people choose to watch or photograph wildlife to unwind, and it's perfectly fine if they choose not to be chatty. Respect their time and their space.

Note on drone use:

Drones are becoming an even more popular tool to capture the world around us. We get it - we have a drone and absolutely love it. But we are hyper-aware of all the considerations one must have when using a drone.

  • Follow the law and any rules pertaining to drone use in your filming location. Don't risk getting a hefty fine, being arrested, or having your drone taken away because you didn't follow the rules.
  • Respect other people's space with drones. Yes, companies are coming out with "quiet" functions and the like, but they still make noise. On a beautifully calm and quiet day, there are few noises that grate my nerves more than the buzzing of a drone. If you are capturing video near other people, keep your air time to a minimum or ask their permission.
  • In birding areas, we recommend having a spotter along with the flier. In general, if we are videoing habitat, I will have my binoculars or scope to constantly monitor the behavior of the birds in the area. As soon as we see any change in their actions, we move away from them immediately. There are far too many videos on YouTube showing birds being followed (read: harassed) by a drone and flying away because of it.

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It's our responsibility to act accordingly when out in nature, and to set a good example for other people birding or wildlife watching, especially around those new to the hobby and children. If you see someone breaking the law or the code of ethics, assess whether it's appropriate to confront them or notify the proper personnel (e.g., a ranger, security, etc.) to stop the situation from progressing further.

The key point to remember in all of this is to put the wellbeing of wildlife first over getting that sighting or obtaining that photograph.

Other resources you can visit for more information on this topic are:

American Birding Association

Leave No Trace

Mindful Birding

BirdLife


Have you experienced any of these ethics violations while out on a birding or wildlife-watching trip? Let us know what you think in the comments!


Happy Birding!

Christa and Nathan


P.S. Be sure to check out our other blogs here!

P.P.S. A note on the featured image for this post - Gray jays (Perisoreus canadensis) are found in boreal and sub-alpine environments throughout much of northern North America, and like many corvid species they're social and very intelligent. When people began feeding the gray jays on Mount Si, Washington many years ago (to include peanut butter sandwiches and pieces of cheese) the birds became accustomed to flocking to these places when they are filled with tourists. Nathan barely had to hold out his arm to point to something before one swooped into his hand in search of food that wasn't there. While this might be a "cool" experience, this is also how "nuisance" wildlife gets its name, and ultimately how animals can be put at risk by our behavior. Let's work together to keep wildlife wild!