“Birding is increasingly popular as a means to be in the wild and see wildlife. Unfortunately, this has an impact on the birds”… How about we change that?
9 Easy Birding Rules
To protect the birds & their habitats
Birding is increasingly popular as a means of enjoying wildlife, but we have to remember the impact this may have on the birds. Respecting the habitat and the bird’s welfare is the number one ethical rule for anyone enjoying the activity of birding or photography. It is easy to get caught up in a moment of excitement or ignorance and forget to behave mindfully. Here, we are presenting further details, considerations, and requirements for when you’re out there with the birds. Keep in mind that the general EwA Wildness Etiquette also applies to Birding.
Knowing is Caring: Learn before you go. Visit birding locations well prepared so as to minimize your impact, and maximize safety for anyone (birds included) as well as for the enjoyment of everyone. Enjoy!
Since the year 1500, we have lost over 150 bird species – an extinction rate far higher than the natural background. Today, one in eight bird species (13%) is threatened with global extinction, that amounts to 1,375 bird species. 218 species of those are Critically Endangered, including 18 which are tagged as possibly extinct or possibly extinct in the wild.
The IUCN Red List assessments show that things are getting worse. Particularly alarming are sharp declines in many formerly common and widespread species. This is a signal of wider environmental problems, and of the erosion of biodiversity as a whole.
Read More » Why do Birds Matter? (Audubon)
1 | 📐 Distance rule: Keep your distance, don't crowd or chase, move slowly ⎆
Keep them safe – observe at a distance…
Birds are subject to regular disruptions from the bird enthusiast before you and the ones that will come after you. So, be especially conscious of your actions around them.
👥 ▸ Group size matters! Bigger groups are louder and more disruptive which increases stress to the birds. Keep birding parties smaller to limit impacts on the bird’s behavior and habitat.
▸ Watch for changes in behavior that might indicate that you’re too close and causing stress. Some birds will adopt an erect posture, start vocalizing, freeze, hunch into a protective posture, or even fake injuries. If you see possible signs of stress, back off.
▸ Don’t incite a reaction. Never approach a bird with the intent of making it fly.
▸ Keep your distance! Especially around nesting and colony sites, feeding grounds (e.g. parrot clay licks), and mating display leks. 🔭 Make good use of your binoculars, scope, or zoom lenses rather than approaching closer. Note that if you’re using a macro or a wide-angle lens you are in essence too close (even if operated remotely). Telephoto lenses of at least 500 mm are recommended.
▸ Not usually thought about, but dress appropriately and prefer drab, muted colors. It’s not just about the birds it’s about wildlife in general. Bright and flashy colors are distracting (taking their attention away from their activity), and for some birds, it might be even a true nuisance. For instance, do you know that common cranes are sensitive to colors (and sound), and may even change nesting behavior and flight patterns to avoid them?
▸ Oh and before we forget: Don’t handle birds… Why? See our next rule.
» Check Also: The Greater the Distance, the Better for All!
2 | 🚫 Road & Trail rule: Stay on tracks ⎆
Check where you put your foot, where you drive that car…
It is critical that we keep habitat disturbance to a minimum.
▸ Respect the designated viewing areas, the roads, paths, and trails where they exist.
🌿 ▸ Don’t trample vegetation: animals forage and live here.
▸ Don’t clear an area to see better, and certainly not around a nest as it may be providing camouflage and protection.
» Check Also: Respect Designated Viewing Areas
3 | 🚑 Rescue code: Resist and call... ⎆
Resist the call of the cute
▸ Don’t touch. Parent birds may leave their chicks alone in the nest for long periods of time while foraging. They are not abandoned. When we touch them, we leave behind a scent that may attract more predators.
▸ Resist. What if the chick is not in the nest? Again, this does not mean they are abandoned. Depending on the species and their developmental stage, this is normal behavior. For instance, many species of birds such as robins, scrub jays, crows, and owls leave the nest and spend as many as 2-5 days on the ground before they can fly. This is a normal and vital part of the young birds’ development. While they are on the ground, the birds are cared for and protected by their parents and are taught vital life skills (finding food, identifying predators, flying).
☎ ▸ Best is generally to avoid contact and call the local wildlife care center instead. Prepare: Find that number and email before you go so that it puts your mind at ease. If no one answers that call, then make a note of the location, take a pic, and send it.
» Check Also: Hands Off
4 | 🍔 Food rule: No baiting & keeping them on a wild diet ⎆
Let’s remember that feeding wild birds overall reduces their chance of survival.
🍞 ▸ Simply put: our food is bad for them. And if throwing bread crumbs to birds seems like fun, well… bread actually hurts birds more than it helps them. It’s basically the equivalent of junk food for a bird. Birds fill up on it and no longer have the hunger to forage on what nature intended: insects, aquatic/terrestrial plants, and for some species, fish. Sugary food should also be avoided.
▸ Don’t incite action with food baiting (or with anything really). Never lure a predatory bird with live bait or with decoys. Baiting changes the behavior of these birds in a way that is harmful to them. Again the best actions are those which happen naturally.
💡 #DYK — Why Would a Bird Eat Clay?
Some birds are known to eat clay, such as these Blue-and-yellow macaws below. This is called geophagia. It is unclear which function is driving avian geophagy. However, the evidence is mounting that sodium is the more important driver among parrots in southeastern Peru. Parrots are known to eat toxic foods globally, but geophagy is concentrated in very specific regions. Scientists have shown that parrot geophagy in South America is significantly positively correlated with distance from the ocean. This suggests that the overall lack of sodium in the ecosystem, not variation in food toxicity, is a better predictor of the spatial distribution of geophagy in this system.
» Check Also: No Feeding Nor Baiting
5 | 🔦 Light rule: Toning down the blinding effect ⎆
Turn off the white light, go with red…
▸ Do not use flash: it induces stress and can make them vulnerable to predation. Flashes at night may temporarily limit a nocturnal bird’s ability to hunt for food or avoid predation.
🏮 ▸ Prefer a red over a white light at night. Night walks using light torches that are not specifically made to avoiding disturbing wildlife have a negative impact. For nocturnal birds, white light disrupts their nocturnal activities. For nonnocturnal birds, using white lights at night disturbs their sleep and might mess up their internal clock. Use red light instead!
But why is red light ok?! Humans have three types of cone cells that have peak sensitivities to blue light(S-cones), green light (M-cones), and red light (L-cones). It is our red-sensitive L-cones that enable us to see red when we use red light at night. However, the retinas of most nocturnal animals do not have L-cones and this means that they are not affected when we illuminate them using red light.
▸ If you’re out with a guide, follow their rules. However, challenge respectfully if they’re using white light or otherwise operating unethically.
» Check Also: Turn Off the Light
6 | 🗣 Sound rule: Keep quiet, avoid recordings, minimize pishing ⎆
The best actions happen when we observe quietly.
Scientific studies are accumulating evidence that loud human voices and noises are detrimental to birds. As visitors and observers, let’s remember to marvel at them quietly…
▸ In general, limit the use of recordings and other methods of attracting birds. You should never use such methods in heavily birded areas or to lure any species that is Threatened, Endangered, of Special Concern, or rare in the area. Using sound should also be avoided during nesting season.
Sound harassment is not ok. Pishing or playing bird calls and songs from any device is harassment when overdone. It distracts the birds from spending their energy on activities, such as foraging or territory defense, and can cause stress. It can also unnecessarily expose birds to potential predators. Think about the birders that come along before and after you. If frequent visitors are using sound to attract birds, they are not isolated events and are regularly disrupting bird behavior.
▸ Under no circumstance, we should lure a bird by sound when the bird is endangered, or when the bird is at a critical point in its nesting behavior.
» Check Also: Quietness & Peace
7 | 🔭 Sighting rule: Share sensibly ⎆
Before sharing a sighting, think about the potential impact on the birds and their habitat.
▸ Before sharing, pause and think. It’s certainly not about keeping a sighting for oneself, it’s more about being mindful for the bird. It’s gauging our immediate environment and estimating if the crowd around would come running to see that sighting, therefore potentially harming the bird and its surroundings.
▸ The downside of sighting apps. The same is to be said with using sighting apps to alert our fellow birders in the area. But we should all be able to enjoy that bird? Ideally yes, but no, not when there are hundreds of us… A recent story comes to mind where, in the South African Krueger national park, the park considered prohibiting the use of those apps. Why? Shared sightings caused visitors to rush to the site, creating overcrowded situations and car accidents killing wildlife.
▸ Be cautious when sharing location information of endangered and rare birds. Sadly, even scientists have to reconsider the mention of site studies, as poachers have used science papers to locate and capture rare wildlife, fueling the gruesome illegal wildlife trade.
💡 #DYK — The Scale of Illegal Wildlife Trafficking
The trade involves hundreds of millions of wild plants and animals from tens of thousands of species. To provide a glimpse of the scale of wildlife trafficking, there are records of over 100 million tonnes of fish, 1.5 million live birds, and 440,000 tonnes of medicinal plants in trade in just one year.
» Check Also: The Greater the Distance, the Better for All!
8 | 🚮 No Litter rule: Leave no trace ⎆
“Take only memories, leave only footprints.” ― Chief Seattle
We’ve been choking wildlife one piece of litter at a time, and now is the time to stop. The impact of our trash has been devastating on birds. Our trash, our plastic, finds its way to waterways and ends up in all corners of the world. There are even human-uninhabited islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean covered with litter and killing entire bird colonies.
Waste such as discarded plastic, discarded fishing gear, rotten food, lead-based items such as bullet casing, metal and glass debris, harm wildlife.
🗑▸ Dispose of your trash responsibly either at home or on-site in proper and tightly closed trash bins.
♻ ▸ Recycle what you can, and take it home if no recycling bins are available on site.
▸ Give a hand and collect (and dispose appropriately of) the trash that you find.
💡 #DYK — Ways that litter affects wildlife
Depending on the type of litter, that litter affects birds and wildlife in ways including:
- Poisoning: e.g., lead, paint chips, heavily moldy food or cigarette butts can poison birds if ingested.
- Obstructing digestive system: small plastic items are mistaken for food, swallowed, and then block digestive tracks. The bird can’t eat and starves to death.
- Habitat loss: waste accumulates, and takes over prime habitat (as in the cases of dumps, islands, ocean gyres).
- Injuries: sharp glass or metal waste cut. Wildlife gets entangled in abandoned gear.
» Check Also: Leave No Trace
9 | 💬 Engaging rule: Lead by example, challenge when possible, report when necessary ⎆
We only know what we know…. And it’s easy to forget the rules in the moment, while in awe. Let’s accept that, be humble and keep ourselves in check.
▸ When you witness ‘code-breaking’ or unethical behavior by visitors, guides, or even experts, don’t remain silent. Assess the situation and if you feel safe, then question their behavior and discuss the known consequences of it. Our silence will only deepen the issue and allow negative impacts to continue.
▸ The best is to come prepared and discuss the rules with your party and your guide before getting on the site.
▸ In all cases, discuss respectfully with uninformed watchers, guides or experts. And if you feel you can’t (that is, if you feel unsafe or threatened), then report immediately to higher authorities as soon as you’re back to safety.
» Check Also: Listen, Help and Challenge Others
📚 References & Extended Bibliography ⎆
If you are planning to visit birds and the wildlife around, please take the time to also check our general EwA Wildness Etiquette. Help the protection and conservation of the habitats and species you enjoy. Thanks!
General Birding Ethics
- American Birding Association Code of Birding Ethics
- Audubon Guide to Ethical Birding Photography
- Stop! Don’t Shoot Like that — A Guide to Ethical Wildlife Photography by Dattatri, S. & Sreenivasan, R. Conservation India (2016)
- When a Bird Asks You to Back Off (EwA publication 2017)
Rescue code: Resist and call
- What To Do If You Find A Baby Bird (Audubon Portland)
- I Found A Baby Bird. What Do I Do? (All About Bird)
- Baby Birds Out of the Nest (Mass Audubon)
- Resist the Call of the Cute (BirdLife International)
Food rule: No baiting & keeping them on a wild diet
- Stop Feeding Ducks Bread (National Geographic)
- Stop Feeding Bread to Birds (Nature Conservancy of Canada)
Sound rule: Keep quiet, avoid recordings, minimize pishing
- Visitor Noise at a Nesting Colony Alters the Behavior of a Coastal Seabird by Buxton & al. (2017)
- Simulated Birdwatchers’ Playback Affects the Behavior of Two Tropical Birds by Berton, J., Harris, C., and Haskell, D. (2013)
- The Proper Use of Playback in Birding by Sibley, D. (2011)
Sighting rule: Share sensibly
- Safari roadkill: Kruger National Park Wants to End Mobile Apps on Where to Spot Wildlife as Speeding Motorists are Killing Animals
- Scientists are Accidentally Helping Poachers Drive Rare Species to Extinction
- The Truth About the Exotic Bird Trade Will Make You Rethink Buying a Parrot in the Pet Shop
- Unsustainable and Illegal Wildlife Trade (WWF)
No Litter rule: Leave no trace
- Plastic Island – How our Throwaway Culture is Turning Paradise into a Graveyard by Paton Walsh, N. & al. (CNN)
- How Litter Hurts Birds – The Effects of Litter on Birds
- Nearly Every Seabird May Be Eating Plastic by 2050 by Perkins, S. (2015)
Sharing is Caring Share Spread the Word!
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◊ Note that this Etiquette is and will remain a work in progress. If there is anything else you would like to see added, please let us know and we’ll do our best to include it. Let’s be Earthwise Aware. Let’s enjoy and protect wildlife responsibly! Thanks for your support!