Birding Ethics & Practical Guidelines (incl. Photography)

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At the center of birding watching is awe at the beauty and sheer variety of birds. To share this joy with others, we must preserve the birds’ natural environment and behavior. This is the principle behind birding ethics. Whether novice or expert, all birders are expected to abide by this code.

What is birding ethics?

Birding ethics is basically a set of bird watching rules that aim to mitigate the stress birds and their habitats face when humans intrude. This code becomes especially important as the popularity of bird watching rises. The more people enter birding territory, the more detrimental it is to their natural behavior and environment. 

Luckily, there are ways to lessen the impact of human presence–many of which are listed here. The common idea behind all these rules is that birders must always put the bird’s safety and well-being first. Incidentally, the same set of rules also works to protect the experiences of fellow bird watchers.

Disclaimer

This bird code list is a set of best practices derived from ethical guidelines set by birding associations, personal experience, and common sense. It is extensive, but by no means comprehensive. As long as you understand the spirit of the law, you can judge for yourself based on the individual circumstances.

Birding best practices

Keep your distance

The most basic of bird rules is to keep a safe and respectful distance from them. It may be tempting to take a few steps closer for a better look, but refrain and enjoy their beauty from afar. That’s what your binoculars and distance photography is for!

You’ll know when you’re encroaching on their territory if they turn in your direction and change their vocalization to an alarm call, or take flight. Take it as your cue to slowly back away.

Be particularly careful around areas where important bird activities take place, such as feeding spots, roosting areas, or places where mating displays happen.

Be extra cautious with nesting birds

Nesting and feeding the young are among the most interesting displays of bird behavior, so it’s easy to understand the desire to see it up close. But remember that nesting birds are especially vulnerable.

If they notice your presence, their stress levels will skyrocket out of worry for their young. If the nesting birds turn in your direction or have a distraction display, slowly back away.

The birding best practice to follow when you see a nest is to stop where you are and increase the distance between you and the bird. Then use your binoculars to observe from afar.

Reduce voices and noise

Birds have a sense of hearing much sharper than ours. One of the primary reasons is because they use it to detect danger. The slightest unnatural noise can send them flying, so it is in your best interest to keep as quiet as possible.

As you tread through the underbrush, keep your steps light and avoid dry leaves. If you’re carrying a cellphone, keep it on silent or vibrate. There are mufflers for camera shutters as well. But perhaps the best example of birdwatching gone wrong is when people are talking to each other. Learn to communicate with simple gestures or in low voices.

Leave dogs home

Dogs are fun to have on outdoor trips–except if you’re going out birding, that is. You’ll be hard put to find a canine who can walk quietly enough not to scare birds away. 

While dogs are an inconvenience to birds perched on trees, they can be downright dangerous to ground nesting birds and their chicks. According to the ABA code of ethics, birders should not expose birds to danger.

This rule should be followed all the time, even if you’re not out birding. So if you’re going to somewhere known to have a ground-nesting colony, be sure to put your dog on a leash.

Learn to recognize signs of stress

With a little research and practice, you will be able to tell the warning signs of avian stress. Ideally, you should not see them do this when you are out birding. But if they do, take it as a sign to quietly leave their territory.

Species may differ in how they express stress, but the common signs include nervous flapping, change in intensity and tone of vocalizations, abrupt changes in natural behavior, or aggression. A colony of birds may take flight from the trees when there is a perceived threat nearby–this is called flushing and is a sign of stress as well.

Never use audio playback near nesting areas

Using pre-recorded bird calls is generally frowned upon in the bird watching community. While it is effective, it disrupts the bird’s natural behavior which is against birding ethical rules.

This is particularly dangerous in nesting areas, where a playback call can lure a territorial bird away to look for the supposed intruder. Activities like feeding the chicks and protecting them are interrupted, leaving them vulnerable. 

The ABA ethics code allows this for very specific situations. It should only be used for species that are not often seen in that area, or for species that are threatened with extinction.

Stay on established trails

Birding sites often have established trails leading from one hotspot to another. These may be paved or else cleared of vegetation, making it easier to pass through.

Going off the beaten path is not advised. For one, trudging through the forest growth to create your own trail leaves a wake of broken branches and trampled plants. Birding guidelines are strict about limiting damage to the environment.

Secondly, you may inadvertently trespass on private property, which is a no-no whether you’re a birder or not. And finally, you may get lost or end up somewhere dangerous if you leave the established trails.

Backyard birding

Birding etiquette also applies to backyard birding. This refers to measures you take to attract birds into your home. 

If you installed bird feeders and waterers in your garden, make sure that these are regularly cleaned to prevent moldy food and stale water from harming the birds. 

Make sure to minimize their exposure to danger. Keep pets–particularly cats–indoors or take measures to control them outdoors. Find ways to mark your windows to prevent window strike. 

You can practice bird conservation in the comfort of your own home by using native plants in landscaping. Plus points for berries or fruits for added bird attraction!

Bird photography and videography

Evaluate the potential for disturbance

It’s a birder’s dream to spot a rare bird on a trip. While it may seem like a good idea to broadcast the news to the world, you must first think about the announcement’s potential to disturb that environment.

Calling out to your fellow birders may scare it away, so communicate quietly. In their excitement, they might rush over to the area, so remind them to keep a respectful distance.

If the rare bird is found to be nesting, notify your local conservation authority. They will assess if announcing its presence will be in the bird’s best interest.

Never flush birds to fly

Birds are majestic when they fly, so it’s easy to understand the desire to capture that moment of suspension. However, bird photography ethics and bird videography ethics prohibit anyone from manipulating a bird into flying.

In birding, this is called “flushing”. This includes running quickly towards birds or throwing something at them to scare them into flying.

This makes for highly unethical photos or videos as it interferes with their activity. The birds may have been resting, feeding their young, looking for food, or building their nest. Flying is a metabolically strenuous activity, so it also expends their energy needlessly.

Use a telephoto lens

The easiest way to follow bird photography ethics is to use a telephoto lens. This refers to a camera lens with a focal length of at least 60mm. This is different from a zoom lens, which refers to lenses that are able to change their focal length from long to short. 

A telephoto lens is perfect for birding because it allows you to keep a safe and respectful distance while taking a high-quality photo. While you can also use a zoom lens, note that they tend to make loud sounds when adjusting from one focal length to another which can scare birds away.

Use blinds

A must-have in the wildlife videography and photography arsenal is the blind. This is a piece of cloth in the same color as the environment that is meant to hide a person from the bird’s view. There is a slit or flap where the camera lens can come through to take a picture or video.

Blinds come in all shapes and sizes. From big ones that look like camouflaged tents to small ones that are draped directly on the photographer, birders are spoiled for choice. You can even make a DIY version by buying camo cloth at the store and draping it around branches.

If your activity causes birds to move, you are too close

You know you’re intruding into a bird’s territory if its behavior changes once it notices you. The usual tendency is to take immediate flight, but some birds may freeze in the middle of their activity, or change into an aggressive or protective stance.

Whatever the manifestation, know that your presence has caused the bird to feel stressed. It may even put them in danger–when their attention is focused on you, they are vulnerable to attack from nearby predators.

When you see a change of behavior brought about by your presence, take it as your cue to back away quietly.

Avoid using flash if possible

Using flash for bird photography is not advised. When you flash birds, they get stressed and fly away, much to the annoyance of those birdwatching with you. Instead, work with natural light to maintain the bird’s wellbeing and to practice basic birding photo etiquette.

Ethical owl photography and night predator photography are even stricter about using camera flashes. Since these animals operate best under the cover of darkness, bright light can disorient them and scare away their prey. Use special cameras and filters that help you follow the ethics in photography during the dark.

Remove location data

Social media allows for instant updates of exciting events. In many of these platforms, geotags can be used. While you may be over the moon about seeing a rare bird and capturing it on camera, think twice about posting its location.

Hype can lead to a rush of people into the area, disturbing the flora and fauna. It’s best to change your location settings and avoid geotagging pictures and videos of rare or sensitive birds. If someone asks about it, be sure to orient them about proper behavior during birding, should they be interested to look for it.

Do not use drones

The use of drones for capturing nature has risen in popularity. But if you think it has any benefit for capturing pictures of birds, you’d be wrong.

Drones are small but highly conspicuous. With their loud buzzing and strange appearance, they easily alarm birds and animals. National parks and wildlife refuges often require special permits to use them.

The cameras that are used in drones are typically wide-angle lenses meant to photograph landscapes, not individual creatures. It would need to be dangerously close to a bird to take a halfway decent photo. You can get much closer to a bird on foot!

Personal safety and parking

Use a tracking device

It’s easy to get so immersed in birding that you lose track of time or the trail you’re at. A lot of unexpected things can happen outdoors, so it’s better to be safe than sorry. Always inform someone of where you plan to go and what time you plan to return.

Carry a tracking device on your person, or else allow a loved one to track your phone’s GPS signal as you go birding. This way, they can easily find you if you get lost or stuck. But don’t forget to keep it on mute to avoid scaring away birds!

Wear neutral color clothing

Dark, muted, and dull colors are the best options for birdwatching clothing. Anything loud or bright will just make your movements that much easier to spot, drastically decreasing your chances of observing birds.

Make sure that you blend in with your surroundings. While camo wear is a good option in forests, it’ll make you stick out like a sore thumb on bare rock and sand. So adjust your definition of “camouflage” accordingly.

It is important to note that this tip on birding clothing only applies to NON-HUNTING AREAS. It is dangerous to blend into the surroundings in these locations.

Stay hydrated and safe

When you prepare your birding pack, make sure to bring along water and snacks to stay hydrated and energized. Check the weather report to make sure that your clothing is appropriate, and bring anything you might need if it gets rainy or cold. If you have daily medication, don’t forget to take it along.

Spending hours outdoors can be damaging to the skin. Be sure to cover up your bare skin with sunscreen and wear a hat. Bring a travel-friendly sunscreen bottle along and reapply. Take breaks during your trip to catch your breath, hydrate, and take a snack. Just don’t leave any trash behind!

Parking

If you become an avid birder, you’ll find yourself looking for birds everywhere you go–and that includes when you’re in a car. But remember that the ethics of bird watching and laws for car safety both apply in these instances.

If you spot a bird while on the road, make an effort to tear your eyes away from it to look for a good spot to park. Under no circumstances should you stop or abruptly slow down your car just to look at a bird. Find a shoulder to pull up to or a designated parking area to stop at. If there is none, forget the bird.

Group birding and illegal activities

Respect other birders

Birding may seem like a quiet and solitary sport, but sharing the joy of a bird sighting is one of the hobby’s deepest pleasures. Maintaining this camaraderie is an important part of the birding ethical code.

This is reflected subtly in the guidelines against disrupting bird behavior and habitats. Preserving the natural state of things allows birders of the present and the future to share in that wonder.

It is in the community’s best interest to encourage as many responsible bird watchers as possible, as each contributes to conservation. As such, be kind to beginner birders. Share your experiences and mistakes to help them improve.

Group birding

Group birding is a fun activity if done properly. Keep groups small and choose a leader for easy coordination. Share best practices and pool knowledge to increase the chance of seeing birds. Be mindful of how your behavior impacts your group, and how your group affects the other bird watchers and travellers in the area.

Keep in mind that your desire to see or take a picture of a bird should not trample the ability of others to bird watch. Respecting pictures and videos taken by others and doing your part to stay quiet and hidden are just some basic things all birders should do.

Witnessing unethical birding behavior

When you are out birding, you might see other birders violating the ethical code. More often than not, it is because they are unaware or have momentarily forgotten the rules, so be kind. Wait a few moments to see if they correct themselves. If not, approach them to gently remind them what is the more appropriate action to take.

However, there may be times when the violators insist that what they are doing is right. In this case, you may let the group leader or guide know. If there are no authorities nearby, document the behavior and report to the relevant authority later on.

Illegal activities involving wild birds

Birds are protected by laws such as the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. It’s best to read up on them for the specifics, but in general, these laws prohibit the distressing, hurting, killing, capture, collection, and selling of threatened and native birds, their eggs, or nests.

If you see any suspicious activity, document it if able. Then report it to the relevant local environmental protection agency or U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. If you find an injured bird or lost chick, taking it home may be illegal. Instead, call a licensed wildlife rehab facility to inform them.

Private and public property

Private property

When you go birding, make sure that you know the boundary between public and private spaces. Following established trails and taking time to read signs will help you avoid trespassing. Do not follow a bird into private property unless you have the permission of the landowner.

There may be times when you are able to observe a bird found on private land from a public viewing point. If you feel that the landowner is getting uncomfortable, take it as your cue to leave.

Be considerate of the people living where you are birding. By being friendly and respectful, you elevate the bird watching community in their eyes.

Follow the local law

Before going to a birding area, familiarize yourself with local laws regarding flora and fauna. Read all the signposts and listen to the guide, if any. Many of these regulations coincide with the common ethical birding practices, but there may be other rules unique to the place you are visiting.

Pay special attention to those regarding birding, including the use of flash for bird photography, audio playbacks, or food lures. If a location is a nesting site of a particular bird or home to a sensitive species, they may also be special rules to protect them.

Don’t litter

Trash is not just an eyesore, but a very real danger to wildlife. Indigestible packaging can be mistaken as food or get stuck on feet and feathers, leading to injury and disease.

Bird watchers should not be part of this problem. Whenever you visit their habitat, do not leave anything behind. While birding guides usually have trash bags for collecting garbage, it’s best to come prepared. Have a small container where you can stuff your trash and bring it out with you as you leave. You can use this container again for the next trip.



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