April 2020

Birding Ethics

While most beginning birdwatchers are interested in becoming "better" birders, even those with lots of experience don't always realize that "good" birding involves more than just what we succeed in seeing. How we watch the birds, and our resultant impact upon them, other species, and even other birders, are obligatory considerations if we want to be responsible environmental participants.

The issues involved in birding ethics touch on nearly all aspects of our endeavors, and there are online resources available which explain the ramifications of everything from accessing locations, reporting sightings, and photographing what we find, to habitat protection, predation sensitivity, and possible conflicts with other recreational activities.

The American Birding Association, predictably (see last month's article), has what is arguably the most publicized Code of Birding Ethics[1], in a full-sheet, nicely designed, printable, postable list. It appears comprehensive, but a review of some alternative compilations reveals how much more there is to consider, both in scope and in detail. The National Audubon Society Ethics page[2] explores some specifics of baiting and feeding, while its section on birdcall apps reminds us that "fundamentally, birding disturbs birds".

Perhaps most challenging is the independent initiative of the Morrissey Family Foundation, Mindful Birding[3]. Not only do they provide an entire website devoted to the issues involved in ethical birding, with a 1-page poster-style, a 4-page "extended", and even a 17-page "comprehensive" version of their Guidelines[4] collections, but they also evaluate birdwatching festivals across the continent for their commitment to appropriate guidelines for behavior. Their Mindful Birding Award is given to festivals that publish ethical standards online, and recognition is extended to those that have donated to the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund or similar efforts. An extensive list of nature conservation actions that birders can take immediately has been supplemented with a Bird Alert[5] (A Favorite) "cartoon adventure" on YouTube from a bird's point of view.

Possibly the most succinct summary of ethical standards is the "Don't be a jerk! admonition ("Rule #2") from The Birdist[6] postings on the Audubon website. Demonstrated within the wry, informative, and some times silly articles (nearly 100!) is an admirable moral compass that can inform all our avian-related activities.

Finally, some recent postings on this reviewer's favorite bird sightings email lists[7] offer specific examples of what might be required from us to avoid "jerkdom" in this pursuit. If visitors' dogs are chasing gulls in a local park do we challenge them in a way that prompts complaints about aggressive "anti-dog" birders? Do we accuse rangers of being "anti-gull" if they don't enforce leash laws strictly? Alternatively, how do we balance our interest in seeing rails in a wetland during a super high tide with the rails' desires to stay concealed from predators? Is scoping from dry ground enough, or do we just stay away?

For the administrators of those same mailing lists, questions arise of when to moderate posts by rude or insensitive "experts" whose bird knowledge is not matched by interpersonal skills regarding questions of identification or who squelch a casual birder's delight in seeing a locally common species for the first time in a season. And what are, after all, the ethical implications of using a term like "trash birds"? This reviewer resigned from such an oversight role as a result of not handling similar difficult issues well. These questions are not always easy.

The Bird Wide Web™ will be publishing a new article each month.

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