Birding ethics

home nettasmith at
Sun Mar 17 10:19:45 PST 2002

Hello tweets,

My internet connection was down for a couple of weeks, so I was blissfully
unaware of all the discussions of Painted Bunting watchers and bird-tape

It's great to be connected again, with a shiny new computer. With all the
varied "discussions" that have made tweeters one of the more colorful
e-mail lists, I'm surprised we haven't had any computer debates. I suppose
it's because all of you intelligent people out there agree that Macs rule!

Anyway, I read the discussions on birding ethics with great interest, and it
reminded me that I had written something about that some years ago for
WOSNews, and I unearthed it from the archives. If I can be pardoned for
recycling it, I'm including it here as another viewpoint to be aired from
the Tweeters Soapbox. I really want to underscore the point that Wayne
Weber and Rick Taylor made - that birding represents an entirely
insignificant threat to birds compared to the long list of other ways by
which humans affect them. No other group of people have the birds'
interests more firmly in mind than we do.


Dennis Paulson

The American Birding Association (ABA) sent a questionnaire to its members
in 1992 (Winging It 4: 6-8) to determine prevailing ethics of birders, and
the answers (Winging It 4: 12-13) sent a shock wave through the birding
community. It seemed that some birders (5-50%, depending on the situation)
would put reasonable ethics aside to see a target bird. Subsequently,
several articles in WOSNEWS have addressed the question of birding ethics
from different viewpoints. Because of this I am prompted to set to paper
some of my own ideas about the subject. I hope other members will continue
to add their views, as this is a subject clearly worthy of discussion; but
let there be light rather than heat. I thank Richard Droker, Tom Schooley,
Jeff Skriletz and Netta Smith for stimulating discussion.


First, a word about the evolution of birding. Back at the dawn of birding,
birdwatchers were merely people who liked to look at birds. Time passed,
affluence reigned, and these birdwatchers, at some point renamed "birders,"
began to go beyond enjoying the birds of their immediate homestead. They
looked forward to seeing new birds, often travelling far and wide to see
them; they kept life lists and, often, other lists. A special treat, sweet
icing on an already tasty cake, was finding an unexpected bird. Birders
shared these rare finds with acquaintances and submitted them to Audubon
Field Notes for publication. The goal, if I remember rightly, was just to
get out in the field to encounter birds.

For many people, this describes birding still. However, this is the 90s;
times have changed. My first meeting with a sport birder took place in the
late 1950s; I will never forget it. Several of us took a visitor into the
Everglades and watched with some consternation as this enthusiastic birder,
having been shown his first Swallow-tailed Kite (the most magnificent bird,
in my opinion), looked at it for a few seconds, got back in the car, and
said "On to the next life bird." As much as I hoped otherwise, this
attitude toward birding turned out not to be a temporary aberration but
spread like a dominant mutation through the birding population. Sport
birding is here to stay.

Perhaps the time birding became a competitive sport can be fixed at the year
when its own set of rules were first published by the ABA. "You can count
this on your list, you can't count that . . ." Once birding became a sport,
there was increased emphasis on listing, or "twitching"‹a preoccupation with
increasing one's list(s) that has generated an intense interest in seeing
birds that are seen only rarely. I think it is these rare birds rather than
birds in general that are at the root of any ethical transgressions. There
seems now, in addition to the listing rules, to be a need for a second set
of rules: rules of ethics. Perhaps we should call them "twitching ethics."


What I wish to do is add my own perspective, examining birding ethics from
the standpoint of the three groups who should be the recipients of these
ethics. I think it is beneficial to distinguish these groups, as unethical
(better termed "inconsiderate") behavior has different consequences in each


The birds themselves, those creatures that make birding possible, represent
the first level of concern. We have two reasons for ethical behavior toward
birds. First, it's not morally defensible for humans to disturb birds in
such a way that they fall victim to predators, die from starvation or
injury, or are unable to breed. Second, when we disturb a bird too much, it
may leave, and we lose the pleasure of its company. Taken to extremes, too
many birders and a complete breakdown of ethics could chase all the birds

However, a critical question to ask is how often birders disturb birds in
ways that significantly lower their survival and/or reproductive fitness.
In my opinion, the answer is "not often." Such disturbances are rare
events, events that are of far less consequence than the publicity that
accompanies them. The fact that we all cite the same examples when we
bemoan the overzealousness of birders should tell us something. How many
WOS members know of a breach of birding ethics anywhere in our state that
had significant consequences to a bird?

There are many ways in which humans affect wild birds, both individually and
in populations. We destroy or alter their habitats, we pollute their air,
water and soil, we hit them with our automobiles, we place windows in their
flight path, we subsidize our pets to prey on them, we make them susceptible
to disease by concentrating them unnaturally, we let our cattle graze their
nesting habitats and for good measure trample their nests, we hunt many of
them for food and sport, etc. I personally don't believe birding even
qualifies for inclusion in the "etc." For the most part we don't disturb
birds as birders, but only as people. It is only when birders descend in
some numbers on an individual (rare) bird that real "bird disturbance" may

People who have written criticisms of birder behavior have used terms such
as "bothering" birds. What does this mean? We humans can be irritated or
bothered by many things that happen during the day‹a negative interaction
with a mate or coworker, a verbal altercation with an aggressive driver, a
closed espresso bar just when one needs a latte. Mental creatures that we
are, our equilibrium is disturbed surprisingly easily. I am firmly
convinced that birds are not so easily disturbed. They are fairly strongly
programmed creatures, oriented toward feeding, avoiding predators,
attracting a mate, incubating eggs, feeding young, migrating, and other
normal behaviors. Anything that doesn't significantly prevent them from
carrying out these processes probably doesn't bother them very much. They
are optimizers, much more than we are, and they go about their life very
well if at all able.

Most birds are amazingly resilient to disturbance. Anyone who watches birds
in a city park, teeming with humans and dogs, must realize this. In Seattle
Peregrine Falcons go about their business in the midst of human turmoil.
Recently friends and I enjoyed a flock of plovers at Ocean Shores, keeping
our distance. After lengthy scrutiny, I became aware of a fantastic photo
op‹juvenile Black-bellied, American Golden and Pacific Golden in the same
frame. Just as I decided to advance, all their heads popped up, they leapt
into the air and were gone. After briefly cursing the harrier that flew
over the spot, I realized that birds live unendingly with disturbance, that
it is as much a part of their daily life as feeding and sleeping. I suspect
most birds in the wild are disturbed far more by predators, real or
imagined, than they are by human intention or carelessness.

A few years ago the practice of dragging ropes over grassy fields to flush
Yellow Rails for birders at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge was stopped,
because of concern for the birds' well-being. This practice must be viewed
in light of two additional factors. First, it was carried out for years,
and, if the same fields were full of Yellow Rails winter in and winter out,
it's difficult to conclude that such birds were significantly disturbed.
Second, it was carried out in only a tiny part of the refuge, and I wonder
if it wasn't worth it to mildly disturb this particular set of birds just to
let birders get the thrill of seeing this interesting species‹not rare but
just difficult to see. Just as Canada Geese in a park are habituated to
people all around them, can't we assume that the rails were habituated to
ropes flushing them from the grass every once in a while? Unfortunately, the
"rail buggies" crushed vegetation and probably bird nests, so they
unquestionably had a negative impact on individuals of the locally breeding
species during that season. But for each person who saw a Yellow Rail in
this way perhaps there was one fewer person who walked into a breeding
marsh, with the possibility of attracting a predator or even stepping on a
nest. This scenario is not imaginary; the 70 birders at an ABA convention
who walked into a Minnesota marsh to see their Yellow Rail generated a
lively and critical commentary (Birding 21: 305-308, 1989).

To continue with rails, an oft-cited "horror story" concerns a Black Rail in
California that was stepped on by one of a horde of overzealous birders
trying to flush it (or was it a Yellow Rail in Wisconsin [Birding 24: 300,
1992]?). This was a shame, of course, but it hardly ranks as a tragedy in
comparison with the unending draining and filling of wetlands wherever rails
occur. Birders enthusiastically attempt to save marshes, one reason being
that they contain nifty little birds like Black and Yellow rails. I suspect
it's the same uniquely human enthusiasm that brought that bunch of birders
into both of those marshes. It must be borne in mind that because birders
for the most part are sympathetic to nature, they disturb birds less by
their activities than most other humans do by theirs, and the positive
efforts birders make for the environment vastly compensate for their
negative effects on a very small number of individual birds. Nevertheless,
the word "disgusting" comes to mind when one thinks of hordes of
heavy-footed humans trampling marshes and thickets in pursuit of single tiny

The serious question of ethics here, as has been expressed repeatedly in
other places, is whether seeing a rare bird is worth harm to the bird. We
should unanimously answer in the negative. Birds should not be put in
serious jeopardy just for our lists. However, the vast majority of times we
add to our lists do not involve putting birds in jeopardy. When might this

1) Anything that keeps a rare bird from breeding successfully is a
significant disturbance, so our strongest concerns should be directed toward
pairs of such birds and stringent precautions taken by birders to assure no
disturbance to them. This may necessitate management, for example
restricted or denied access or carefully controlled group visits, as is
routinely done with species such as Kirtland's Warblers. Sadly, some
birders expend considerable effort to get around these preventive measures
(Birding 21: 305-308, 1989).

2) Rare wintering birds may be more attractive to birders because they are
usually more random or unexpected than rare breeding species. Here the
evidence for harming such birds by "overwatching" them is very difficult to
obtain. If a wintering bird is driven from its preferred site by birders,
it can easily persist in a nearby undisturbed site of similar qualities.
Individual birds, unless they are of nomadic species, typically remain in
one spot throughout a given winter, and they know a little less about both
their prey and their predators in another place to which they are forced to
move; thus there is a slight chance they would be threatened by such a move..
However, we know virtually nothing about this phenomenon.

3) Finally, the least likelihood of doing a bird harm involves disturbing
migrants. These birds are usually stopping over briefly, with no ties to a
particular place, so having to move to a nearby locality does them no harm
at all. The only situations in which I can see harm coming to migrants from
birding disturbance is when one is using a habitat so limited in the area
that it is unlikely to find an alternative site near enough to avoid
stressing it, or when one has just arrived from a long-distance flight and
is very tired. Both of these alternatives are possible but of low
probability for a given individual.

Thus guidelines should be for birders to avoid disturbing breeding pairs of
rare species, to be cautious about disturbing wintering individuals, and to
be relatively unconcerned with disturbances to migrants. Note that my
comments are restricted to rare birds; I don't consider birders a threat to
common birds in any way. But note again that I am considering populations
rather than individual birds here.

With the current zeal for birding, it is worthwhile to consider designating
particular pairs or small populations of difficult-to-see species as
"offerings" to birders. The Yellow Rails mentioned above are an example.
We could set these situations up in a controlled way, with signs cautioning
no closer approach than a certain distance. Just as urban birds indicate, if
birds get used to people in a nonthreatening way many of them will tolerate
constant human presence, even close approach. If the disturbance level gets
too high and the birds leave, then the birders have fouled their own nests,
so to speak, and a reassessment and possible change in the guidelines must
take place. We should be able to come up with solutions short of shutting
down rare-bird watching altogether.


However, there are considerations other than the birds' well-being. The
second group of consequence includes other birders, both individually and
collectively. This group includes our friends and associates as well as
strangers. How do we commit "unethical" acts against them? Interestingly,
there seems only a single kind of action that has been mentioned
consistently in this category: a birder disturbing a rare bird so that
another birder doesn't get to see it. I suppose there are other
possibilities, for example not telephoning a friend when a rare bird shows
up. Again, ethics relate only to rare birds, those which the affected
birders are unlikely to see again.

I think birders are much more easily "bothered" than birds. I think a
birder who has missed a life bird because some other birder chased it away
is much more affected‹for whatever reason‹than the bird that was chased
away. I believe there is a bit of a conundrum here, because the same
enthusiasm that motivates a birder to head for the rare bird in the first
place also motivates to keep after it, to see it better, to photograph it,
to get a little closer, to make absolutely sure of it‹to disturb it.

I don't see how any central committee can dictate ethical behavior here; it
has to be worked out on an individual basis. It's not against the law to
scare a bird away (disturbing birds can be considered against the law
[Birding 24: 299-302, 1992]), but anyone who does so will have to answer to
his or her peers. I suspect the rarer the bird, the more the opprobrium to
the birder who disturbs it. Again, note that these comments do not apply to
birders watching common birds. Birders don't offend other birders over
common birds!


The third and perhaps most important group includes the stewards. By this I
mean anyone who is in a position of authority over any piece of public
(federal, state, county, or city, including of course all park and refuge
managers and staff) or private land, upon which a bird of interest may turn
up. It's their land, and their rules prevail, no matter how the vagrant
chips fall.

I think here is where lapses of birding ethics should be our greatest
concern. We all know of cases where property-owners have closed their
property because birders‹even when cautioned not to‹abandoned considerate
behavior to get their bird. Note I'm not referring to major transgressions
of human ethics here, just simple consideration of the other person. In
fact I think "considerate birding" is a much more appropriate term than
"ethical birding" to describe what we all should practice. We are not just
keeping the next visitor off a parcel of land by our inconsiderate behavior,
we are biasing people against birders and birding for all time!

Here there is less distinction between common and rare birds, because
birders may trespass or otherwise transgress even in the pursuit of general
birding. Again, this should be the most serious concern of any future
Birding Ethics Committee (I personally hope we never need such a group).


Over my birding years, more and more land to which I considered myself to
have access has become inaccessible. Some of these places changed owners,
others were developed, still others‹even public land‹became regulated to the
point of exclusion. For example, Damon Point at Ocean Shores, where I have
studied shorebirds for almost two decades, was placed out of bounds to
visitors in 1993 to protect the Snowy Plovers nesting there. Guess why one
of the area's premiere birding spots was closed to birders: there are too
many people (birders and nonbirders), and there is no guarantee that all of
them will behave considerately.

What are the solutions? One would be for us to lessen our preoccupation
with chasing rare birds, which seems to be the root of the problem. I
suspect this is unlikely, so the most obvious course would be for all of us
to adhere to some clear code of ethical or considerate behavior‹like so many
decisions in life, it may have to be our own code‹and to hope for "good
behavior" from all those around us in the birding community.


I feel there is no necessity for the Washington Ornithological Society to
generate its own code, differing from others published in one minor point or
another. Most birders get by very well without the need for formal codes,
but the ABA code (Birding 13: 173, 1981) is sensible and responsible and can
be adopted by all members of WOS who wish to have such a code to follow.
Interestingly, that code addresses birds first, stewards second, and birders
not at all. Most likely, people will follow those parts of the code that
work for them and will ignore those that don't; can we expect more?

More than anything else, to those who have expressed righteous indignation
toward others who practice different birding ethics, I would add an age-old
piece of good advice: "lighten up!" What we need is understanding, not
intolerance, in this as well as other human interactions. As Ruth Taylor
admirably put it in WOSNEWS 27 (October 1993), "Birders need to get along
with each other as well as with the birds."

If I were to formulate a Code of Birding Ethics, it would be simple: don't
be so preoccupied with rare birds that you forget to consider whether your
actions have any adverse effects on anyone‹stewards, birders or birds.

Netta Smith and Dennis Paulson
1724 NE 98 St.
Seattle, WA 98115

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