Bird Photographer or papparazzo?

Ethical Guidelines for Bird Photography

It isn’t only what we do, it’s how we do it. I’m not talking about photo technique here. I’m talking about ethical field practice in bird photography.

You see, we’re bird photographers, not papparazzi. It is not OK to impose ourselves on our subjects at any cost. Specially not to make some money. Our subjects’ welfare should be at the top of our priorities, very much the opposite of the papparazzo approach. An approach which, in my mind at least, cannot be justified either when photographing people.

So we’re bird photographers and as such we must reconcile two seemingly contradictory goals: to photograph elusive, beautiful birds in the wild, and to do so without disturbing them or their natural habitat in the process.

Part of that equation will work itself out. The birds quickly make it clear that when disturbed they go away or fail to approach. They teach us to tread lightly and not look straight at them, for they are sensitive to other animals’ lines of sight and don’t fancy being the main focus of attention of large anthropoids. We learn to look away and zigzag our approach, step by step, trying not to make a sound as dry leaves and branches are crushed under our feet, stopping when we feel it isn’t wise to go any further. We learn never to lift our big camera-lens combination too swiftly, lest the birds think it’s a gun we’re wielding. Which they seem to think anyway.

Another part of the equation may be solved in the hands of good old common sense. Naive as I may be, I like to think that any person nature-conscious enough to go birdwatching knows better than to leave anything behind, right? I mean trash, cigarette butts, chewing gum, anything. RIGHT?

Yet still we need ethical guidelines specific for Bird Photographers. They do exist and should be required reading for all of us.  In this post I’ll share two widely accepted interpretations of these principles. They are solid starting points for a subject that’s not as clear-cut as one might expect.

The American Birding Association publishes a one-page document, “American Birding Association Principles of Birding Ethics“, and encourage its free distribution. ABA Guidelines are adhered to by many birding groups in the U.S. and other countries as well. For instance, the Mexican website Birds of Yucatan (find it in our links) abides by the ABA guidelines and makes it available to its readers.

ABA ETHICAL PRINCIPLES (Click to open pdf, right-click to download).

The North American Nature Photography Association also publishes a one-page document, the NANPA Principles of Ethical Field Practices. You’ll also find their website in our Links section.

NANPA ETHICAL FIELD PRACTICES (click to open pdf, right-click to download)

Please take the time to read both documents, then come back. It won’t take that long. 🙂

Done? Good!

If you actually did read them you’ll notice some common threads:

* Avoid distressing nature.

* Learn animal behavior in order to avoid disturbing their life cycles.

* Keep your distance and use longer lenses if required to stay farther away from the birds.

* Respect the land rules and be respectful of others.

* Use common sense and treat nature and animals as if you are their guest.

* Promote the welfare of birds and their environment.

The ABA’s list actually goes further than the NANPA document and talks about limiting the use of methods to attract birds (baiting, pishing), keeping use of artificial light to a minimum and staying well back from nests and nesting colonies.


But wait, just how close is too close?

How do we correctly interpret these basic ethical principles and put them into practice? Situations will vary. Some bird species are more tolerant to human presence than others, and even members of the same species exhibit different behaviors and degrees of tolerance. Birds in public parks may get used to human presence and allow proximity without feeling distressed. Birds will also behave differently during mating or nesting seasons.

Birds are creatures of habit, so a bird that comes to our backyard every day at the same hour may provide an opportunity to get in an advantageous position before it arrives and perhaps even afford us some degree of familiarity. Chances are if the bird comes to our backyard he’s a bit more tolerant of humans than other birds. But how do we interpret all the signs?

Professional bird photographers, specially those working as part of scientific teams or who are scientists in their own right, earn their ranks gradually and achieve expertise that presumably enables them to determine how close is too close, and what the consequences of their interactions with nature may be. They study animal behavior carefully and act accordingly. Biologists often handle wild animals for research or control tasks, even doing things that are seen as definite no-nos for the rest of us mortals, such as handling nests and their contents. At times specimens may even be sacrificed in the name of Science, for it goes without saying that Biology could not have gotten where it is without the gruesome art of vivisection.

But we’re talking scientists here, and they know what they’re doing, plus they have an organized peer-review system watching over their shoulders.  Consider this: “Research requiring vivisection techniques that cannot be met through other means are often subject to an external ethics review in conception and implementation, and in many jurisdictions, use of anesthesia is legally mandated for any surgery likely to cause pain to any vertebrate”. (Source: Wikipedia)

Oh no! More ethical dilemmas!

Ask a scientist about ethical questions and you will find they deal with these issues constantly and at very deep personal levels. The answers are not always black or white, nor even in plain view. During my interview with oceanographer Sylvia Earle she raised such issues by mentioning how, in order to spread her conservation gospel, a fundamental part of which has to do with humanity’s urgent need to evolve beyond our self-destructive thirst for fossil fuels, she constantly has to fly in highly polluting commercial airplanes burning thousands of gallons of fossil fuels. Her mission is very important, for she is not only a top scientist but also a remarkable communicator imbued with deep love and knowledge of Nature. Her able mind must therefore weigh the contradiction, strive for balance and decide on a course of action.

“I think there is great reason for hope”, Dr. Earle told me. “Because people, when they know, can care. They can’t care if they don’t know. In my lifetime the ability to communicate the nature of the world and our place in it has expanded. So there’s cause for optimism even while we watch the deterioration of many things that are critical for our survival and for the places we love.”

So there you have it: airplane pollution, a very tangible thing, weighed against communication, a not so tangible thing but with very real effects. And off she goes on the big jet airplane.

Professional photographers and filmmakers also face ethical dilemmas. They sometimes come under scrutiny for using diverse methods to capture the spectacular images that a very competitive market demands. Not everyone agrees exactly on what constitutes ethical behavior and what doesn’t. I stumbled upon a lively discussion here, where a case is put forth about a group of photographers throwing mice in the air and making loud noises to achieve pictures of owls in “natural” predatory behavior. There’s plenty of arguing over similar issues all over the internet.

The more we think about these matters, the better. Mistakes can be made by not knowing the right approach. Just by walking carefully through the jungle we may trigger many a bird’s flight instinct. I know I have. It’s also possible to scare a bird away and expose it to predatory behavior, harming him even if we didn’t mean to. So that’s what he was doing, hiding from predators in the low bushes!, one might think after seeing the fleeing bird grabbed in mid-flight by a raptor (no, it hasn’t happened to me). Even then, the ambitious little photographer standing on my right shoulder might entice me to grab images of such predatory behavior… if I could only move fast enough!. Should I?

Off he goes. Or did I scare him away?

Behold: Prime Time predation!

Predation is the most basic rule of nature. Its numerous manifestations provide humans with fascinating animal behavior to document, as evidenced by endless hours of programming on Animal Planet, Discovery, NatGeo and other such media outlets. There’s probably nothing wrong with documenting predatory behavior. Unless, of course, we induced it or helped precipitate it.

Consider the current trend in nature television: it goes far beyond getting close to animals in order to capture their natural behavior. Our TV biologists and experts often impose their presence upon animals at the expense of great stress to their subjects. The hungry audience craves for an even more spectacular shot of our host in the animal kingdom, talking to the camera in a hushed, excited voice as he stands face to face with a dangerous predatory animal no human should be so close to… unless being predated upon. The huge and dangerous crocodile, shark or snake is then unbound and released, and albeit we are sure it felt quite angry and disturbed while in the hands of its captors, it goes back to normal routine in a flinch. Or rather I should say, it goes away very quickly.

Most films don’t show us what happens later to that animal, although we assume they will be OK.  Personally, I sometimes feel compelled to yell at the TV screen: That’s enough, leave him alone! But again there’s that good point about the positive impact of such programs, many of which have scientists on staff: they help raise human awareness and concern for our planet by educating millions about its wonders and the need to preserve it. If one crocodile must be disturbed in order to educate millions of minds and eventually help save thousands of other crocs and creatures, well… it looks like a case can be made.

Eventually, each photographer makes a choice.

I for one don’t mean to stand here on  some purported moral high ground, pointing fingers on what can or cannot be done by whom. But I do invite everyone to ponder the question at hand: How should a regular bird photographer without scientific training behave? What is the correct attitude from my human side of the equation?

To me it seems logical and prudent to lean on those Ethical Principles and, when in doubt, to err on the side of caution. The way I see it every good nature photograph I make should first and foremost be a true homage to Mother Nature. I’m pursuing naturally occurring behavior, not behavior caused by my own meddling.

Having said that, many questions remain unanswered and I hope to keep learning along the way. I have never used calling methods to attract birds, and don’t plan on doing so. Still one might wonder if there’s an acceptable way do it. How about dispersing some sunflower seeds? I haven’t done that either, but many people do it, specially for backyard observation. How harmful could it be, if at all? Where does one draw the line? When does being a “purist” cloud the mind more than it enlightens it?

I will continue to ponder these issues in my ongoing effort to evolve as a bird photographer with a clean conscience. I invite fellow photographers and birdwatchers to do likewise. At present I remain mostly a happily roaming-stalking animal, with my big metal-and-glass-eye and my often failed attempts at invisibility. I like it that way. I’ve also discovered the joys of sitting in a blind and wait for birds to manifest themselves, oblivious to my presence. It takes patience but can be highly rewarding.

I wouldn’t deny that good images do feel like personal triumphs. Eventually, they might even mean money in the bank. But true to our philosophy here in Ride Into Birdland, it’s not the destination that matters, it’s the journey. It’s not just what you do, it’s how you do it.

When in doubt, or in the face of temptation to place the photo above the animal’s well-being, I shall simply ask myself the question:

What are you, Bird Photographer or papparazzo?


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2 Responses to Bird Photographer or papparazzo?

  1. Kevin says:

    Thanks for your perspective on the ethical bird photography debate. Up our way in British Columbia the topic of ethical bird photography has come to the foreground as our birders and photographers alike now race after our ‘hot ticket’ wintering species.

  2. IVAN GABALDON says:

    Thanks Kevin for your comment and for mentioning my post in the Birding in British Columbia forum, which I have found very interesting BTW. I read the responses to your post there. It needs to be an ongoing debate, I think. 🙂


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