Bird Photography Ethics

Hummingbird photo by Scott Bourne

Pyrrhuloxia photo by Scott BourneI don’t want to sound dogmatic or heavy handed. I am not the nature photography police. On the other hand some people may not realize their actions are potentially unhelpful to the wildlife they seek to photograph. So I decided to write this post hoping to educate those who are interested.

In general, I try to adhere to the Audubon’s Guide to Ethical Bird Photography. I will immediately note that I think Audubon’s intentions are 100% pure, but I also think they’re a little too strict so what I offer here is a slight moderation of their guidelines.

It all starts with common sense. Bird photographers should have a high respect for birds and their habitats. This respect must come before getting that perfect shot.

For me, the most important ethical concern is this:

In any conflict of interest, the well-being of the birds and their habitats must come before the ambitions of the photographer.

Avoid causing unnecessary disturbance or stress to birds.

When possible use a telephoto lens or a blind for close-up shots. If your approach causes a bird to flush (fly or run away) or change its behavior, you may be too close.

There are always exception to any rule, but there’s no reason to cause the birds to flush. That is something I always wait for to happen naturally. If you are patient, you’ll see it time and again. Don’t rush the bird to get your shot.

Never advance on a bird with the intention of making it fly.

Audubon suggests that you use flash sparingly. I believe this is too strict. I have spoken with many wildlife biologists, and spent countless hours reading and studying along with countless more watching bird behavior. I’ve seriously studied birds for more than 20 years. Flash is ABSOLUTELY not a problem around birds with one exception. Hummingbirds on a nest can overheat if you use flash with them so I don’t recommend it. Otherwise, if you need flash, use it.

There are many people (photographers and non-photographers) who will tell you not to use flash with birds. I am sure most who tell you that have good intentions. I simply disagree and will use flash when I feel it is necessary. All that said, I DO use flash VERY sparingly but NOT because it bothers the birds. I do it because I prefer the look of natural light.

Be aware of your surroundings. Avoid trampling sensitive vegetation or disturbing other wildlife. Nesting birds are particularly vulnerable, and need special consideration.

Unless you are at a place like the Alligator Farm, where the birds are extremely habituated, keep a respectful distance from any nest.

Avoid flushing the adults or scaring the young, or doing anything to draw the attention of predators to the nest. For example, repeatedly walking to a nest can leave both a foot trail and scent trail for predators.

Do not move or remove anything around the nest, as it may be providing both essential camouflage and protection from the elements.

Luring birds closer for photography is often possible but should be done in a responsible way.

Bird-feeding stations, whether or not they’re used for photography, should be kept clean, stocked only with appropriate food items, and positioned with the birds’ safety in mind. And if you feed the birds, do so regularly. If they become dependent on your food source and you withdraw it, you could cause them problems.

Playback of bird voices to lure them close for photography should be used appropriately.

You should never use bird calls with endangered birds, and if you’re calling never over-call. I limit my use of an artificial bird call to 15 seconds. If it hasn’t worked in that time frame I abandon the idea and move on. Once I’ve successfully called a bird in I never call that bird in again that day. It can stress the bird to overuse calls.

One of the ethical considerations in bird photography has nothing to do with the birds, but instead a respect for private and public property, and consideration for other people.

Enter private land only with permission. On public property such as parks and refuges, be aware of local regulations, hours, and closed areas. Follow the rules and set a good example. Remember that if you’re a bird photographer and you don’t follow the rules others will use that example as an excuse to impugn all bird photographers.

In group situations, be considerate of other photographers and birders who may be watching the same bird. Remember that your desire to photograph the bird doesn’t outweigh the rights of others to observe it. Remember also that large groups of people are potentially more disturbing to birds, so it may be necessary to keep a greater distance.

Do know that no matter how careful you are, how respectful you are, how much you love and wish to protect avian species, some do-gooder will eventually chide you for photographing birds and claim you are somehow harming them. I have engaged with these people for a decade and learned a few things that might help. Don’t argue with them. Don’t yell at them. But also don’t listen to them. Remove yourself from the area they occupy and find somewhere else to work. They may be well-meaning individuals who really think you’re harming the birds or they may just be busy-bodies who think they are here to tell everyone else to do. In either event just move on. Part of being a good bird photographer is being a good person even if those around you are not.

In summary, if you photograph birds it’s likely that you care about them, so keep that care foremost in your mind and everything else will fall into place.

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