misbehaving

January 24, 2007

in Birds

Here are some excerpts from the American Birding Association’s Code of Ethics:

  • Avoid stressing birds or exposing them to danger, exercise restraint and caution during observation, photography, sound recording, or filming.
  • Stay on roads, trails, and paths where they exist.
  • Do not enter private property without the owner’s explicit permission.
  • Follow all laws, rules, and regulations governing use of roads and public areas.

Here are some excerpts from emails I have received regarding the behavior of people viewing the Snowy Owl:

  • “At one point the bird was literally surrounded.”
  • “To top it off, [local birder and photographer] was crawling in the construction site up to the bird for a photo.”
  • “I also saw a birder “parked” on the busy street.” (I also saw a number of cars illegally parked or blocking a construction entrance).
  • “I was there 4 times throughout the day and 3 out of the 4 times the owl was being flushed around by birders, all in the construction area.”

A friendly reminder was posted on the local birding list to stay out of the construction area, and that it was unnecessary to approach this accommodating bird so closely.  This prompted a number of denials dissenting opinions, including that “If there have been inappropriate approaches, I doubt that it was by list members.” This is typical of the comments I’ve seen posted when somebody notes poor behavior.  Of course, I don’t expect anybody to pipe up and publicly admit to being an asshat, but if instances of close approach, flushing, or harassment are so rare, why do these discussions come up so frequently, and why is there a need for organizations to publish ethics guidelines for birders and photographers that amount to common sense anyway?

Yes, this dead horse gets beaten often. In fact, in our area it was
flagellated only a few months ago when a photographer pruned vines away from a roosting saw-whet owl in order to take clearer pictures.  Every year a roost of Long-eared Owls, observable from a trail, gets disturbed by people bushwhacking their way up to the roost trees for a better look. Yet the gist of the ensuing discussion is always that it couldn’t be anybody from the local birding community, leaving me to wonder who the mysterious offenders could be.  Deceased pony or not, I agree with a New York birder who said that “a failure to criticize this behavior is tantamount to accepting it.”

Owls are often at the center of this type of controversy because even common species are not frequently encountered in viewable situations.  But certainly any rare bird can cause this kind of boorish behavior.  I’ve witnessed this enough times that I’ve given up disclosing the location of owl roosts and nest sites of any unusual bird, although I report them after the fact as necessary to the appropriate agencies. (Not without consequences: I received an irate email from someone I had never met who lived hundreds of miles away regarding rumors he’d heard that I had “suppressed” a sighting of a rare nesting bird, and was “concerned” that I’d not shared this with the birding community!)

One person on our list made an interesting observation. He felt that the ease and accessibility of digital photography might be contributing to some bad behavior:

My fear is that now that others have seen [great photos on a photo-sharing site of the owl] that they will try to get … equally good shots. Is it possible that [it] somehow adds to people trying to emulate shots and
therefore harassing the owl more? I know when I saw those pictures, I
thought about how I would love to have taken great owl pictures like
that.”

I had been thinking the same thing. The wonder of digiscoping is that you can get beautiful shots of birds from a long distance. In the past, few people had the money or where-with-all to lug film cameras and long lenses in the field to take close-up shots of birds.  And I never saw anybody with a small point-and-shoot film camera attempt to get close enough to a bird to take a good photo (I’m sure it happened, but it was probably not too common).  But nearly every birder I know has a small digital camera capable of fairly high-resolution photos, and they carry them all the time.  For some of these people, the temptation to see if they can get up on a bird and perhaps get at least a decent shot seems to preclude good behavior and common sense. I’m tempted too, but as you can see from my shots I don’t give in!

So far, I haven’t heard about anybody baiting the owl with mice. But I did see two domestic ducks wandering across the road.  There has been no open water there for nearly two weeks, and these things couldn’t fly.  Did somebody bring them in as an offering?  I have also heard the local paper will run a story.  That should bring people out of the woodwork over the weekend, hopefully not to this end, but it wouldn’t surprise me.  More reading:


{ 3 comments }

John January 25, 2007 at 11:23 am

I really hate this sort of behavior. Luckily I have not been witness to it so far, but I have heard of such things. It is a shame, especially in the case of a bird that can be observed easily out in the open.

Cindy January 31, 2007 at 2:28 pm

this is why I stopped reporting my owl sightings.. people get goofy over owls.. and I've been banned from forums for speaking out about baiting them (like that really bummed me out.. NOT). We have L.E. Owls in the area, they will never hit any listserv.. for just this reason.

Nuthatch February 15, 2007 at 1:48 pm

I'll just toss in this Feb 2007 post from the Ontario Birding List:

Subject: Owl Harassement on Amherst Island
From: Mark Cranford
Date: Mon, 12 Feb 2007

This is almost an annual problem that is frankly not cut and dry.

However I have received a number of emails expressing concerns over the state of wintering Long-eared Owls at the Owl Woods on Amherst Island.

Please use extreme care and respect when viewing or photographing these birds. They are extremely sensitive and easily flushed. In the opinion of some observers these birds are now being disturbed 'continuously' throughout the week. When disturbed they get noticed by mobbing songbirds as well as predators. In previous years this localized
population has been decimated by Northern Goshawk who likely stumbled upon the owls as a result of human (birder) interaction.

This problem is not unique to Amherst, Long-eared Owls winter across the region and could be subjects of harassment in other locations. It's just that Owl Woods has the notoriety and gets more visitors than other places.

Owl Woods at Amherst Island is a precious yet fragile birding gem. Please use common sense and discretion wherever you view these birds. If the Owls flush, stop harassing them and leave the woods promptly.

Mark Cranford
ONTBIRDS Coordinator
Mississauga, Ont.

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