Guidelines for Reporting Sensitive Species

By Team eBird December 4, 2012

Roosting Long-eared Owl, Mercey Hot Springs, Panoche Valley, California. Photograph by Brian Sullivan.

We have posted this story again as a reminder of how to report sensitive species in eBird. As birders, we all love to see owls–they are beautiful, fascinating, and generally hard to come by. An encounter with an owl can be among the most memorable of birding experiences. In many places, however, roosting owls are vulnerable to disturbance, particularly in areas where owls are scarce and people are abundant! When owls are flushed from their secretive roosting spots they are frequently ‘mobbed’ by crows and jays, creating lots of commotion in the process, and drawing attention to species that rely on their cryptic plumage to help hide them from potential predators. If mobbing occurs frequently, the owls may abandon the roosting site. In the worst-case scenario, a larger predator like a Red-tailed Hawk or Great Horned Owl may be alerted to the presence of the smaller owls, and prey upon them. We use owls as an example of what might be considered a ‘sensitive species’, but these can change locally and regionally. So what steps should we take to avoid disturbing owls and sensitive species in general? And how does that relate to reporting these birds to eBird?
Be a conscientious birder

It’s up to each and every individual birder to ensure that they behave themselves in the field. The American Birding Association published a Birding Code of Ethics that should be followed by all birders (see below). eBird fully supports these recommendations and we are pleased that the great majority of birders follow this code. We encourage all birders to review these guidelines, and realize that they are established to help protect the birds we all love to watch! Moreover, take it upon yourself to understand the conservation concerns in your area, and be aware that your actions could impact birds negatively. Use bird conservation resources like local Audubon chapters and the American Bird Conservancy to learn more about the issues in your area. Be smart, be aware, and always keep the bird’s best interests in mind.

How to report sensitive species to eBird

eBird has a series of output tools that display information about birds. Our goal is to promote the exchange of information, and our tools are designed to help people share data. With that in mind, one must consider whether it is appropriate to report specifics about birds that could be considered sensitive. eBirders must take it upon themselves to understand the situation locally and to use their best judgment, as the status of a species may change from place to place. For example, Long-eared Owls are particularly vulnerable to human disturbance in their day roosts across the Northeast, but in the West they can occupy more remote areas away from potential problems.

Here are a few ways to help protect sensitive species when reporting to eBird:

  • Wait until the season is over and the sensitive species (e.g., owls) have left before reporting the birds to eBird. You can always go back and ‘edit’ your checklists later to include sensitive species after the birds have departed.
  • Do not provide explicit coordinates or directions to sensitive species. When using the mapping tool to plot your location, use the ‘general area’ instead of the exact grove of trees where the birds are. For instance, you may say that birds were seen at a state park, instead of listing the exact location within a state park.
  • Delay reporting observations for a week to keep these reports off the ‘eBird Notable Birds feed’. This way news of a rarity will not show up on everyone’s desktop and cause birders to come to your yard!
  • Finally, you can also hide observations in eBird after you have submitted a checklist. Go to manage my observations, click on the checklist you want to hide and scroll to the bottom. There is a link to hide the checklist.

ABA Code of Birding Ethics

1. Promote the welfare of birds and their environment.

1(a) Support the protection of important bird habitat.

1(b) To avoid stressing birds or exposing them to danger, exercise restraint and caution during observation, photography, sound recording, or filming.

Limit the use of recordings and other methods of attracting birds, and never use such methods in heavily birded areas, or for attracting any species that is Threatened, Endangered, or of Special Concern, or is rare in your local area;

Keep well back from nests and nesting colonies, roosts, display areas, and important feeding sites. In such sensitive areas, if there is a need for extended observation, photography, filming, or recording, try to use a blind or hide, and take advantage of natural cover.

Use artificial light sparingly for filming or photography, especially for close-ups.

1(c) Before advertising the presence of a rare bird, evaluate the potential for disturbance to the bird, its surroundings, and other people in the area, and proceed only if access can be controlled, disturbance minimized, and permission has been obtained from private land-owners. The sites of rare nesting birds should be divulged only to the proper conservation authorities.

1(d) Stay on roads, trails, and paths where they exist; otherwise keep habitat disturbance to a minimum.

2. Respect the law, and the rights of others.

2(a) Do not enter private property without the owner’s explicit permission.

2(b) Follow all laws, rules, and regulations governing use of roads and public areas, both at home and abroad.

2(c) Practice common courtesy in contacts with other people. Your exemplary behavior will generate goodwill with birders and non-birders alike.

3. Ensure that feeders, nest structures, and other artificial bird environments are safe.

3(a) Keep dispensers, water, and food clean, and free of decay or disease. It is important to feed birds continually during harsh weather.

3(b) Maintain and clean nest structures regularly.

3(c) If you are attracting birds to an area, ensure the birds are not exposed to predation from cats and other domestic animals, or dangers posed by artificial hazards.

4. Group birding, whether organized or impromptu, requires special care.

Each individual in the group, in addition to the obligations spelled out in Items #1 and #2, has responsibilities as a Group Member.

4(a) Respect the interests, rights, and skills of fellow birders, as well as people participating in other legitimate outdoor activities. Freely share your knowledge and experience, except where code 1(c) applies. Be especially helpful to beginning birders.

4(b) If you witness unethical birding behavior, assess the situation, and intervene if you think it prudent. When interceding, inform the person(s) of the inappropriate action, and attempt, within reason, to have it stopped. If the behavior continues, document it, and notify appropriate individuals or organizations.

Group Leader Responsibilities [amateur and professional trips and tours].

4(c) Be an exemplary ethical role model for the group. Teach through word and example.

4(d) Keep groups to a size that limits impact on the environment, and does not interfere with others using the same area.

4(e) Ensure everyone in the group knows of and practices this code.

4(f) Learn and inform the group of any special circumstances applicable to the areas being visited (e.g. no tape recorders allowed).

4(g) Acknowledge that professional tour companies bear a special responsibility to place the welfare of birds and the benefits of public knowledge ahead of the company’s commercial interests. Ideally, leaders should keep track of tour sightings, document unusual occurrences, and submit records to appropriate organizations.

Please Follow this Code and Distribute and Teach it to Others

The American Birding Association’s Code of Birding Ethics may be freely reproduced for distribution/dissemination. Please acknowledge the role of ABA in developing and promoting this code with a link to the ABA website using the url Thank you.


Some of the content for this news item was graciously provided by Sharyn Magee of Washington Crossing Audubon Society. Thanks Sharyn!

Team eBird