Birding and bird photography ethics

Call Playback, Meal-worm Use, Flash Photography, Mist Netting & the Like: What Lengths to get The Shot?

Birding and bird photography ethics

26 Sep 2014


“The recent media coverage of bird photographers (reluctant to call them bird watchers) tying up a tern chick for better images has prompted me to open a discussion on all our activities relating to birds LINK. This kind of behaviour is not peculiar to any one community or country and bird photographers/watchers have attained an unpleasant paparazzi-like reputation LINK. Others may justify less ‘intrusive’ behaviour like feeding birds or call playback but even here there are disagreements.

“In discussing these issues I do not always expect agreement or consensus, but I hope for reflection and dialogue, as we try and collectively improve our understanding as to how we can relate to birds and nature better, with more respect. Some may call me idealistic or a purist but I am also trying to make sense of my own journey and relationship with birds. Of course those who read this are possibly the ‘converted’ and our wayward brethren may continue on their merry way (some ideas about ‘helping’ them later in the article).

[The graphic on T-shirt on my wife’s MNS T-shirt says it all]

“In this discussion I have not separated bird watchers, bird photographers or even ornithologists. I believe the ‘rules’, if any, apply to all equally. I have used information from a variety of sources (some in references) and also from my own experiences and dialogue with others over my practices.

“I have tried to structure the discussion into 5 categories:

1. Totally Unacceptable Behaviours & Practices

2. Dubious Behaviours & Practices

3. Uncertain Behaviours & Practices

4. Can Certain Practices be Sanctioned for Scientific Purposes?

5. Potentially New Behaviours & Practices to Consider

“May I say at the start that all bird watching, bird photography and scientific bird work disturbs birds. Our aim is to keep this disturbance to a minimum and ensure it is not harmful. I like what the Nature Group of The Royal Photographic Society says ‘There is one hard and fast rule, whose spirit must be observed at all times – The welfare of the subject (birds) is more important than the photograph’ and can I add ‘or the observation.’

1. Totally Unacceptable Behaviours & Practices

(Handling Birds, Nest disturbance, Habitat disturbance, Flushing)

“I think it is generally obvious to any decent human being that handling birds to get better images is never acceptable. We may handle a bird to rescue it and in the process get some images but never routinely. Some local and overseas visiting bird watchers have been known to ‘use mist nets to trap birds so that very close looks may be obtained’. Similarly nest disturbance or habitat disturbance is unconscionable. Some bird photographers/watchers have been known to cut away vegetation around a nest for better images; others to remove chicks for close up images. This ‘gardening’ of the area around nests increases exposure and potential for predation. Parking a tripod and long lens next to a nesting site for an extended period is also harmful. In the same vein, flushing a bird to get a better view or image is obviously traumatic and bad behaviour.

2. Dubious Behaviours & Practices

(Call Playback, Spotlighting, Feeding)

“I have gradually come to the opinion that using call playback, feeding birds and spotlight use is more harmful than useful. Yes it aids the bird photographer/watcher but at what cost? A body of scientific data is slowly appearing on the harmful effects of call playback (PLOS ONE carries research articles). Good guidelines have appeared (see the one from Sibley) but the majority do not adhere to them. I recently came across 10 of my local chaps blaring out broadbill calls to attract birds on a forest trail. They were using portable loudspeakers and the volume and duration were unbelievable. Not only were birds distressed, so was I as a bird watcher. The worst is that some of these are persons who claim to be serious bird watchers and are nature society members. To my shame I did not confront them but left the site. There is such a thing as ‘responsible recording playback’ but few know how or do it right. In a recent discussion on an American Bird Association (ABA) group, in view of the proliferating electronic devices in the field, a member proposed the ABA Code of Birding Ethics be tightened to say ‘The ABA discourages the use of recordings to attract birds in the field’.

“Many also use meal worms routinely to entice birds, often photoshoping out the ‘offending’ worm. Yes bird feeders may be used in colder countries and sanctioned in gardens but feeding birds in the wild opens them to risks. There are concerns that providing ‘artificial’ food supplies increases dependence, opens the birds to predations, potentiate some species and may encourage the spread of disease. I am aware that some paid bird guides routinely use meal worms to ensure their clients that birds will be available. Others have shared with me how poachers have been converted into bird guides as an occupation with feeding activities used to ‘attract bird photographers’.

“What about spotlighting? Use of a flashlight is not uncommon, especially for nocturnal birds. But it may temporarily blind birds and place then at risk. Using it on a nest will frighten the young and may cause adults to abandon the nest. Perhaps confessing my failure may put this in perspective. Four or five years ago I spotted a White-throated Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis) nesting in a drain hole. I decided to take a quick peek with total time at nest of less than 90 seconds. I used a torch to illuminate and took quick pictures. What I saw almost broke my heart and remains a vivid memory to this day – I saw two fragile chicks flinch in fear at the light I shone on them. I had originally planned to do a series of pictures to document growth, fledgling but after this first visit I abandoned the site. I am not sure I could take losing one of these beauties, even if it is a ‘common bird’. To censure myself I have never before posted those images (below). There are no easy answers but I consider these as sentient beings.

“After that event I opened a discussion with a number of respected colleagues on this issue. I reproduce below segments of their communication which is relevant to our entire discussion (I have chosen to suppress identities out of respect for their privacy):

“’… I have long been keenly aware of the potential data content of photographs, also of their value as identification back-up. …. That said, I am not at all in favour of wildlife photo ‘stamp-collecting’, especially when this becomes competitive and risks are taken with the security and well-being of subjects simply to stay ahead of rivals. Potential exposure of nests to predators through undue ‘gardening’ and other interference just to acquire the needed ‘tick’ or piece of close-up art, to my mind, in most cases probably cannot be justified.’

“’ … I do not particularly encourage nest photography, but if someone should come upon a nest during the course of normal birdwatching and take some photographs quickly, keeping disturbance to a minimum and withdrawing from the scene as rapidly as possible, then I see nothing wrong with that. … Once we have images of a typical nest for a species, however, I see little point in adding any more to any database and would discourage anyone from going after additional photos of nests where we already have some.’

“’… Photographing nestling in dark nest tunnels or tree holes would, of course, necessitate the use of flash. The question for me, then, would be to ask exactly how important the resulting picture will be. Is it to record some hitherto unknown behaviour or activity, or just to add another picture to one’s collection, rather like acquiring another trophy? I do not think that one or two pictures will alarm the subject or cause too much damage. They will, naturally, be quite surprised or startled by the sudden burst of bright light and react to it.’

3. Uncertain Behaviours & Practices

(Mimicking Bird Calls/Vocalisation, Use of Hides, Flash Photography)

“I occasionally vocally imitate bird calls and some birds will approach to investigate, is this any different from using call playback? Some would argue it is different, others that it is the same and hence potentially harmful. I am generally using it less with time and make sure I ‘lose’ with any bird who responds – I use it sparingly and limit the number of calls. Hides are a more difficult issue to decide on. They can be useful to document behaviour and minimise trauma to nesting birds but strict guidelines must be followed (see: The Nature Photographers’ Code of Practice). But increasingly we see the use of temporary hides and these can only be justified for mobile birds, not for nests. I also have some nagging concerns about ‘hiding’ from birds. I find they get very startled when they spot you suddenly appearing from behind a bush or hide. So perhaps taking the time to cultivate a mutual, visual understanding and relationship is the more rewarding option. Flash photography is the most contentious of the lot. Many bird photographers/watchers routinely use flash photography to improve the quality of the image. In some circumstances, a cave or dark environment, the image cannot be taken without a flash. Distance and type of flash matter. There is no doubt that birds are affected, but is there harm? Personally I rarely use it.

4. Can Certain Practices be Sanctioned for Scientific Purposes?

(Ringing, Mist Nettings, Egg Collection, ‘Collecting’ Birds for Museum Specimens)

“This group of activities are carried out by the bird scientist, the ornithologist. Valid and useful work, but some of which needs more scrutiny. The injury rates and mortality that birds experience with these activities is not always spoken about. I have heard from those in the field of the problems associated with collecting birds with mist nets or other techniques. John G. Williams, curator or ornithology at the British Museum in Nairobi, and author or co-author of ‘The Birds of East Africa’ is quoted as saying ‘I have skinned thousands of birds caught in mist nets. Every single one of them, from tiny passerines to large raptors, had bruises on their breasts that matched the pattern of the net that they struck at high speed.’ A small percentage of birds caught in mist nets die upon impact and still others perish or are injured while being removed or afterwards.’ LINK.

“A local ornithologist shared with me ‘From the scientific point of view, I have been constantly criticised for my reluctance in ‘collecting’ birds as museum specimens. I am a ringer, and I regularly set up nets to trap birds. For me to actually kill a bird I have trapped feels rather like a betrayal of trust, and a breach of the ringer’s code of conduct. However, birds do, sometimes, die in the net, or of shock during handling. … Nearly always, I have generally been so upset by it that I just pack up my nets and go home. The dead bird, however, I prefer not to waste – I usually send the body to the nearest Museum.’

“Marlene Condon (see reference) argues that the time has come to halt bird banding (ringing). In that same article is an argument for it to continue. Data shows that only a very small percentage of the millions of birds banded are ever recovered, but a higher rate of mortality, loss reproductively and impaired is faced by these banded birds.

“I could continue with reports of birds ‘collected’, polite word for killed, to study stomach contents, etc but feel the point has been made. Yes scientific work is required but in the age of digital technology much can be achieved without trauma but by more painstaking observations.

5. New (and Potentially New) Behaviours & Practices to Consider

(Radio Transmitters & Satellite-Tracking, Continual Video Recoding/Cam of Nests Online, Drones?)

“Some of these are not really very new but are increasingly deployed, especially some form of GPS tracking of movement and migration. I know too little about them to say much more. But I recently saw an image of a raptor taken from a drone that suggested we may, in the future, have enthusiasts hovering these devices up to high nests to get close ups. An area of concern for nesting raptors and others.

[A Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) feeding with Asian Openbills and egrets during a recent visit to the Peninsula)]

Taking Responsible Action

“I would like to end by discussing some options and direction forwards. It requires all of us, bird watchers, bird photographers and ornithologists, to work collectively to encourage our colleagues to behave responsibly towards birds. Some suggestions:

a. Evaluate and change our own behaviour first.

b. Move away from and discourage the twitcher/ticker bird watcher mentality with the associated ‘kiasu’ attitude (one-up-manship) to ‘must capture the image’. This includes us discontinuing the reporting of new and total bird species seen and such associated activities.

c. We must actively discourage paparazzi bird photography behaviour and speak against it when we see it. It only needs for you to tell one person about a rare bird for 200-300 to turn up and harass the bird. Best at times to keep quiet and report the nest or bird after the event.

d. There is a need to tighten local bird watching behaviour rules and be more explicit about specific activities.

e. There must be safe guards for local and overseas eco bird tourism. Time to organize bird guides in an association and set standards.

f. Web sites moderators must also encourage better behaviour and restrict posting excessive images of nesting birds.

g. For our wayward brethren, who choose to disregard basic rules and respect for birds, the time has come to ‘police’ ourselves. We fail each other if we do not speak out. We need to document bad behaviour and submit to a central group that make decisions about the ethics of this behaviour. Once decided (sufficient evidence) clear action should be taken that could include:

• Inform all major blogs and bird database moderators.

• Remove all images taken by them from any blog/post/bird database.

• Publicly name and shame in bird circles.

The hope is that such behaviour will decrease and some will reform.

“In the final analysis, we must ask what is our aim? I believe in the end the birds must come first. It does not matter if we do not get the ‘shot’. Too much of an obsession these days to get that ‘perfect’ image, time to let go and just enjoy nature. The best images are kept in the heart.”

Some Useful References:

American Bird Association (ABA) Code of Birding Ethics.

Ethical Birding Guidelines – Birdlife Australia LINK.

Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) Code Of Birding Ethics LINK.

Marlene Condon, Is It Time to Halt Bird Banding? LINK.

Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) – The birdwatchers’ code LINK 1 and LINK 2.

Sibley Guides – The Proper Use of Playback in Birding LINK.

Slim Sreedharan, Wildlife photography LINK.

The Nature Photographers’ Code of Practice – Produced by The Nature Group of The Royal Photographic Society. Revised 2007 in consultation with the RSPB and the three Statutory Nature Conservation Councils LINK.


Dato’ Dr Amar-Singh HSS

Ipoh, Malaysia

25th September 2014

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One thought on “Birding and bird photography ethics

  1. The paparazzi here on the Northumberland coast is getting totally out of hand, they take over specific areas… parking on roadsides… grass verges and even in the middle of the roads (it’s an accident waiting to happen)
    Sadly all comes down basically to one-upmanship and “who” can post the best images on wildlife Facebook pages

    Liked by 1 person

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