Birding Ethics: Guidelines for respecting birds, their habitat, and each other

Snowy Plovers are sensitive to human disturbance and may abandon nests if disturbrPhoto © Steven Mlodinow

As birders, we love to spend time with birds in their habitat, sharing their space. But regardless of our motivation for going out and finding birds, we always have the potential to cause disturbance and harm to the animals we are observing. It is important for us to consider our impacts to wildlife, other birders, and non-birders we may interact with while out in the field.  Ideally, we can all be observers, not influencers, of wildlife behavior.

Reducing risks to birds:

There are many ways to ensure that our actions are not directly harming birds or their habitat.

Collisions with cars kill tens of millions of birds in North America every year. When driving around refuges or other birding destinations, drive slowly and with extra caution. Using the eBird Mobile app or texting other members of your party can wait until you are stopped! If you have a dog with you, be aware of how it is affecting wildlife. Dogs can chase ground-nesting birds off of their nests and even kill chicks and eggs. When you are on-foot, be on the trail! Otherwise you migh damage vegetation, destroy low-lying nests, and cause extra disturbance to wildlife.

Humans sharing space with wildlife may cause indirect harm through disturbance. Some species such as nesting owls and Snowy Plovers are especially vulnerable to human disturbance and can even abandon nests if bothered too much. The nest of any bird should always be viewed at a distance where you are not causing agitation to the parents. Alarm calls and rapid or frantic movements from adult birds is a cue to move away from a nest. Humans can also draw the attention of nest predators such as jays, which sometimes follow human observers to nests, or ground predators may also follow human made trails.

Consider that bird behavior might be best left to the birds. Playback and pishing (mimicking songbird alarm calls) can draw birds closer and encourage vocalizations, but are inherently disruptive to the birds. The use of playback and pishing is best left for educational purposes or research and is not necessary to enjoy a day out birding.

Those leading birding groups also have a responsibility to make sure all group members are engaging in safe and ethical birding. Birding with others is a great way to exchange knowledge, make connections, and increase the strength of the birding community, but increased numbers of people means increased risk of harm to wildlife and their habitat. It is up to the trip leader to make sure these risks are minimized. Leaders can do this by appropriately sizing the group, and laying out expectations before starting a birding trip. This is especially true for trips. Birding trips that go into vulnerable plant communities such as alpine tundra or wet meadows, where trampling of plants can lead to habitat damage.

Respecting other humans:

Bird mania, we have all been there. Deep into a birding adventure, you are single-mindedly focused on absorbing and identifying every feathery movement. All of your senses are strained, and all non-bird related information is being filtered out. Suddenly, a small gray-brown form flits over a fence and into the bushes of a home that happens to be adjacent to the park you are birding in. Was it a Brewer’s Sparrow? That would be a new one for your county list! Maybe if you just peek through the fence or walk around a bit you can get a better look?

It’s easy to forget that the family living in the house likely do not appreciate a stranger with binoculars poking around their yard. While birds don’t worry about human property boundaries, we as birders can be more sensitive to private property. Crossing private property without permission or pointing binoculars in the direction of others or their homes should be avoided. Always be polite and courteous to anyone you might run into while birding and be mindful of how your actions are being perceived by members of the community.

Your actions can also have a major impact on others you are birding with. Beginner birders can benefit immensely from the knowledge and enthusiasm of a patient and friendly expert who is willing to share their knowledge.

Remember that your actions shape others’ perceptions of the birding community and can have a major influence on those you are birding with.

Ethical Birding Guidelines:

● Be aware of sensitive and threatened species that might be vulnerable to disturbance.
● Do not share nest locations of sensitive species except with appropriate wildlife officials or conservation scientists.
● Stay at a distance where you are not agitating birds or modifying their behavior, especially near nests.
● Leave dogs at home or on a leash if in an area with ground nesting birds. Shorebirds, such as Snowy Plovers, that nest on beaches are especially vulnerable to loose dogs.
● Limit use of pishing and playback — Do not use in heavily birded areas or for sensitive species.
● Drive slowly and carefully.
● Stay on designated trails, do not trample vegetation.
● If leading a birding group, be aware of group size and make sure it is not so large that it is damaging the habitat or interfering with others using the same area.
● Make sure all group members are aware of and practicing ethical birding guidelines
● Respect private property rights, only enter with express permission.
● Follow all traffic rules, drive the speed limit, don’t park on the road, keep eyes on the road.
● Don’t point binoculars towards other people or directly into yards or windows.
● Always be polite and courteous to non-birders you encounter, share your knowledge when appropriate.
● If birding with others, be respectful of the ability of all group members, be encouraging and share your knowledge with beginners.

Ethical Birding Resources:

Mountain Bird Festival Ethical Guidelines:
American Birding Association Code of Birding Ethics