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Common Excuses for Unethical Behaviour by Bird Photographers

Updated: Nov 4, 2021

and why They are Wrong.

If you have ever tried to raise the issue of ethics in respect of photographers' behaviour you will almost certainly have come across one or more of the responses below, either directly or indirectly. I, personally, have come across all of them over the course of my photographic career. Sometimes, people do things because they are genuinely unaware that it could have an impact and that is understandable. We all do things when we first start often because we are just so excited about this new world of birds we've 'discovered'.

However, many of the photographers who continue to practice questionable behaviour, even after being told of its potential to harm birds, do so for reasons which do not stand up to science, rational, dispassionate analysis, the law or plain common sense. Sadly, the 'need' for great bird images often clouds their ability to see the issue from an objective point of view.

It is worth bearing in mind that reputation is everything.

“One of the things I tell young photographers at the end of the day is, never forget that your reputation is everything. If you want to take shortcuts, if you’re exposed, you will set everything back decades,” [Brian] Skerry [long time National Geographic photographer] says. “You have to be above reproach. You have to do it right”: How to photograph wildlife ethically, by Melissa Groo.

Further, certain behaviours are so common, such as the use of call playback to attract birds to perches, that they have become 'normalised'. NORMALISATION is the negative concept when certain behaviours or outcomes are seen, or demonstrated by role models, so often that they become regarded as normal without consideration of context or ethical justification.

I hope by setting out the below, it will help many people to both 'see' where their logic may be misconceived, and for others, provide an answer to the most common excuses that are used when ethical issues are raised.

“Having heard all of this you may choose to look the other way but you can never again say you did not know”

Lord Wilberforce

To capture action and interesting poses, make sure you shoot in continuous shutter mode. If you wait until you see the shot, you will miss it.
Great Crested Grebe, Herdsman Lake, Western Australia

I love birds.

Almost everyone I have ever confronted over ethical issues has responded by saying 'but I love birds'. I have no doubt that they do believe that they love birds. The problem is that they are unable to separate the warm fuzzy feelings associated with their bird photography, which are inextricably linked with the praise they get when they get a good image of the bird, from a genuine, dispassionate respect and concern for the bird itself.

Loving 'birds' includes respecting the right of the living individual in front of you, to live free of deliberate (and unnecessary) interference or harassment.

If they were no longer able to photograph the bird or another animal (or tell others about it), would people still pursue them with the same passion just to observe them?

When it comes to the worst ethical offenders, one only has to look at the content of their social media accounts or website to see that they have a pre-occupation with their photography, not with the welfare of the subject, or indeed its conservation.

South African wildlife photographer and safari guide Isak Pretorius attributes a false sense of accomplishment from social media posts and “the idea of instant fame without putting in the hard work,” as contributing factors to unethical behaviors in photographing wildlife. “Instagram and Facebook are great tools for bragging about your photos, building a portfolio to get your name out there, and enjoying the attention that spectacular photos bring,” he says: Ethics of Wildlife Photography.

I am spreading the love of birds.

The simple answer to this is that you can spread the love equally well without doing high impact photography. Indeed, social media is littered with countless beautiful animal images.

Twilight offers some great opportunities for getting birds in pools of pink. For this shot, I was standing in other to get the birds in the pink water.
Common Greenshanks, Albany, Western Australia

I could see that the bird was not stressed.

We need to distinguish between two kinds of stress reaction.

The first is the visible changes to behaviour. This may manifest itself in the bird appearing agitated. For instance, it is often easy to spot images of birds that have been called in using call playback as they will often have their tail and crest erect and/or be aggressively calling.

A friend told me he was out with a photographer who used call playback to call in a bird. The bird was visibly agitated. He said to the other photographer that he should stop as the bird appeared to be upset, to which the photographer replied, "yes, but look at the great images I am getting."

Even if the bird does not appear agitated, it will likely be having a physiological response, with studies showing that even short playback session can have long lasting and far-reaching effects on individual fitness (study led by Daniel J. Mennill of the University of Illinois into 'Female eavesdropping on male song contests in songbirds' using call playback: Science. 2002 May 3; 296(5569)).

Further, a lack of response does not mean a bird has not reacted or has become inured to the stressor.

“Without a doubt, playing a call will alter behavior to some degree,” says Isak Pretorius. “Some calls that appear to have no positive reaction might be an intimidation call, scaring the animal away.”

One tour guide claimed that he had used call playback for many years in one area with no noticeable impact on the resident bird species. However, this claim is based on the false premise that he would be able to see the impact. In the absence of a detailed study of each individual bird in the area, its life span and inter-relationship within its own species and with other species, such self-serving claims have limited evidential value.

They are also readily contradicted by others. Dr Bruce W. Miller, Associate Conservation Zoologist, Wildlife Conservation Society, Gallon, Belize (NEOORN post[6], 22 March 2005) observed over 14 years that “.... many bird species formerly common are no longer to be found in the same locations where some guides ...... play tapes for 15–20 min without stop”. The birds, however, continue to be found in similar undisturbed habitats.

Nesting birds

I have heard photographers state that they did not disturb the bird as the parent returned to the nest.

Just because a bird continues to visit a nest does not mean it is not stressed by your presence. It is snookered. It can't move the nest to another location so, unless it abandons the nest (which has been known to happen, especially with raptors), it has no choice but to continue to visit and feed the chicks.

I only did it once.

Once can be enough to cause detrimental harm. Studies have shown predation of birds responding to a conspecific call playback is a real risk.

A friend was on a bird walk and one of the group used call playback to attract a bird into the open. Almost immediately a raptor flew down and took the bird. The birder responsible for the call playback quipped 'that's one bird that won't be calling again'.

Further, every action must be considered in terms of its cumulative impact. Times have changed, significantly. In this era, we must ask the question what would happen if 100 people did the same thing as you to the same bird or in the same location?

It is an important question to ask yourself given that:

  • The number of bird photographers has increased exponentially in recent years. One state based Australian Facebook group for birders increased from 200 to over 14,000 members in just 2 years. Another currently boasts over 45,000 members. The 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation report stated that in the United States there were 45 million birders, which equated to 18% of all Americans.

  • the rise of social media (and its algorithm which rewards high impact and regular content) is driving photographers to constantly get newer and closer bird images to post to their accounts;

  • there is a proliferation of birding apps with bird calls readily available on mobile phones;

  • there is an ever increasing number of websites, books and bird data sites (such as ebird) that give detailed locations of birds (sometimes even GPS co-ordinates), including of rare and remote species.

  • the number of birds has decreased substantially (A 2019 survey of 529 bird species in North America that found that the bird populations have fallen by 29 per cent since 1970, a loss of nearly three billion birds, with the decline across the board, affecting common birds that are ‘vital to ecosystems, controlling pests, pollinating flowers, spreading seeds and regenerating forests’. Similarly, in Australia, the 2015 State of Australian Birds report found that 144 (12%) of the 1241 species and subspecies regularly occurring in Australia were considered threatened in accordance with the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. As in North America, many common terrestrial birds, such as the southern boobook and tawny frogmouth, had also shown significant overall declines); and the

  • The habitat of birds is shrinking rapidly and dramatically, resulting in fewer and more concentrated 'birding' locations (For instance, in Queensland, the home of some of Australia's most popular birding locations, about 395,000 hectares of native vegetation were cleared in 2015-2016, the equivalent of 1,500 football fields per day).

This striated heron was hunting in the mangroves. I lay at the waters edge and shot this image as it stalked through the roots. The low angle helped to blur the foreground and background.
The Skulker

The bird was fine when I left it.

As noted above, not all the impacts of stress are visible or immediate.

Further, any predator that you have alerted to the presence of the bird may wait until you have disappeared before predating the bird.

There is no proof it's harmful.

In most cases there is ample scientific evidence that certain behaviours (eg call playback) are harmful. When photographers use this excuse, they usually exclude any evidence on the basis that it relates to a different species than the one they are photographing and the activity, such as call playback, is not proven to be harmful to all species.

[Please note that first hand witness testimony is also evidence. So, for instance, I could ask my friend who saw a bird that had been called into the open being taken by a raptor, to sign a statutory declaration about the event and this would count as evidence that it happened (the issue then becomes how much weight to put on that evidence etc).]

However, even setting aside the fact that there is evidence that call playback can be harmful to birds, it has been long established in the field of environmental law the evidential onus to prove a potentially harmful activity is safe is on those seeking to do the activity, not on those wanting to prevent it. It's known as the precautionary principle and it is so widely accepted that it has become international customary law.

In other words, if you claim it is safe to use call playback then the universally accepted principle of environmental law is that the onus is on you to prove it is so before taking out the tape recorder and blasting away.

Most countries incorporate customary international law into domestic legal order in some way, so that in Australia the precautionary principle is embodied in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity. Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). Where it has not been explicitly incorporated into, or excluded from, domestic law it is implied into the law. Hence, it is highly likely that the precautionary principle applies in almost every country in the world.

Everybody does it.

Normalisation is the negative concept when certain behaviours or outcomes are seen, or demonstrated by role models, so often that they become regarded as normal without consideration of context or ethical justification.

"The tour guides do it," was what one young birder told my friend recently when she advised against using call playback.

In Australia, any tour or photographic guide using call playback to lure birds closer, without a licence, is almost certainly committing an offence and is liable to having their tour licence revoked.

I did not disturb the nesting bird so it's ok for me to post this photo to social media.

The issue is not only what you did to get the photo, but also what someone else will do who tries to replicate your image.

Blanket ban

The simplest and most effective way of preventing people from disturbing nesting birds (the most critical time in a bird's life) is to discourage the posting of nesting bird images, regardless of how the image was taken.

Many photo competitions and responsible bird photography forums specifically prohibit all birds in nest images for this reason.

Whilst it may be tempting, and arguable, to have exceptions for nesting bird images that are not readily copied, such as colonial nesting birds in Antarctica or nests at the top of tall trees, the problem is that, once you make one exception, it raises the question of where to draw the line.

Remote, livecam feeds of nesting birds by birding authorities is one way of promoting our understanding of, and empathy for, the lives of birds with minimal risk to the birds themselves through either direct disturbance or indirectly encouraging badly behaved copycats.

It is important not to flush migratory birds. To get this image, I lay at the waters edge in the direction the birds were feeding. Eventually this bird came right in front of me.
Bar-tailed Godwit, Mandurah, Western Australia

The bird was nesting in a public area

This remains the most common excuse of photographers posting nesting bird images. There are several reasons why it is not ok.

Firstly, even though a bird may nest in a public area, it is habituated to human beings acting in a certain way, that is, walking or running along footpaths, coming and going from front doors and/or generally going about their business without paying any attention to the birds around them. Anyone who has ever had a bird nesting in a plant in their garden will know that the birds are extra careful never to go to or leave a nest whilst you are watching. There is no doubt that if you stand and watch the bird openly they get stressed.

Similarly, a bird in a public park may be used to people walking by, but as soon as a human stops and looks directly at it, let alone points a big one-eyed lens at it, it gets agitated. I was once tasked with getting an image of a common Australian magpie in flight. I thought this would be easy as they are everywhere. However, what I quickly realised is that whilst they were prepared to 'hang out with humans' they become very nervous if you suddenly paid them too much attention and immediately left the area.

Secondly, even if you did not disturb the bird whilst taking the image, by posting a bird nesting in a public area you are encouraging others to do the same, and not everyone will do so with as much care. Further, imagine if dozens of people stopped and took a photo of the willie wagtail in the nest next to the path? Can you still say that it would have no impact?

If anything, publishing images of nesting birds in public places is the WORST kind of nest photography to post on social media, due to the fact that these birds are so visible to others and vulnerable to interference. Few people may be able to replicate an image of a bird nesting at the top of an Andean mountain or 30 metre high gum tree, but potentially hundreds of people have easy and ready access to the bird nesting in a local park, making it more vulnerable, not less.

Lastly, there is a study that suggests that far from being more able to cope with stress, birds that are in high stress environments, such as public parks, are susceptible to having a catastrophic collapse at the addition of even small, additional stresses. In simple terms, the additional stress of humans 'watching' the nest may be the mouse that sank the boat.

I am a professional/high profile photographer so it's ok for me to do it but you shouldn't try to copy me.

A person once told me that when she questioned the wisdom of a particular high profile photographer posting an image of nesting birds, she was told by other users that she had no right to ask the question of that person because they were a 'big photographer'. One even asked, "Do you know whose account this is?" as if the popularity of that photographer gave them the right to do whatever they liked, unquestioned.

Being a good photographer, having a high profile or having a large social media account does not mean you can get away with doing things other 'lesser photographers' aren't allowed to do. On the contrary, with a greater profile comes a greater responsibility to do the right thing.

Part of the problem is a reluctance by high profile photographers to be public advocates for ethical photography. Enabling or facilitating is the concept that by action, or lack of action, people (such as photographic peers) are potentially causing undesirable behaviours and outcomes, or allowing them to happen.

I use a big lens.

The issue is not also what lens you have used, but also what lens someone else will use who tries to replicate your image.

Professional photographers often caveat their images by saying "I have a big lens and took this image XYZ metres away from the nesting bird so it was not disturbed. You should not try to copy me if you do not also have a big lens."

The problem with this argument is that, firstly, people never read the fine print. Anyone who regularly uses social media will know that only a handful of people actually read the caption that comes with the photo. Most simply 'like' or 'comment' quickly and scroll on.

Secondly, even if they have read the 'fine print', humans being what they are, and the lure of popularity on social media becoming all-consuming, many will still try to copy the image.

Thirdly, it is a misconception that bird photographers with big lenses do not get as close to the bird as those without the same focal length. In my experience, most bird photographers will try to get as close to the bird as possible regardless of the focal length they are using.

I have not been birding very long. But I had a very bad local experience with birders overwhelming an area(for weeks if not longer) where Long-Eared Owls were hanging out. People who claimed to be birders came in droves with HUGE lenses and STILL encroached on the small thickets where they were spending the days in. Even stomping well into the blackberries to get closer. I had a much smaller camera and stayed way further back. When I mentioned respecting the wildlife it was not received well. I stopped birding there period because it was upsetting and all I could do to help was be one less person out there.

See above re Blanket Ban on nesting images.

Call playback has less impact than trampling through the reserve chasing birds, pishing or being in the presence of birds for a long period.

Trampling vegetation versus call playback

Firstly, being a responsible nature photographer means respecting the animals and the habitat in which they live. If getting an image or seeing the bird means you have to trample through undisturbed vegetation in hot pursuit, you should not be doing that anyway.

Signage by the local government authorities stressing the impostance of sticking to the paths and not trampling vegetation.

Birders and photographers (and any person looking for a wild animal) need to change the way they approach the issue.

Being able to see or photograph any wild animal is a privilege, not a right.

Presence of human as a stressor (as opposed to call playback)

Secondly, as to the stress you cause a bird through being in its presence, this stress is not likely to be more than that caused by call playback. Birds are used to humans behaving as humans. Most birds may not like our presence, but they are not perceiving us as a serious threat in the same way as a real predator, such as a goshawk, or a territorial intruder that could usurp the dominant males status.


A pish is an imitated bird call (usually a scold or alarm call) used by birders and ornithologists to attract birds (generally passerines): Wikipedia.

Any reaction to pishing is likely to be through curiosity, or heightened caution, rather than to a known threat. Birds are likely to know when a noise is made by its own species or a different species, such as a human. As such it is not likely to elevate stress levels in birds to the same extent as call playback which is a recording of a bird's actual call.

However, as you are causing a noticeable reaction, over and above your mere presence, you are still 'disturbing' the birds. Until more research is conducted on the impact of pishing (including cumulatively) on an animal's stress levels, this too should be discouraged as a method of gaining a bird's attention.

Call Playback is Natural

No. It isn't. One bird calling another is natural. A human pretending to be a bird calling another bird is not.

Everybody has a right to see a new or rare bird.

No. They don't. Seeing and photographing a bird is a privilege, not a right. A better way of looking at it is to say that every bird has a right to exist without deliberate interference from birders/bird photographers.

I lay under the fruiting lilly pilly tree not far from where these birds were feeding and  got this image of a red-winged fairywren standing in a pool of purple fruit.
Under the Lilly Pilly

We have an ethics policy.

But is it strong enough and do you enforce it? There is no point having an ethics policy if, in practice, you never enforce or refer to it.

When I confronted a moderator of a popular forum several years ago about why they did not call out a photographer who openly used unethical practices they responded by saying the 'photographer in question is very popular with the other members and we don't want to upset anyone.'

When did you last update it? Have you taken into account how much the birding environment has changed in the last 20 years (as to which see I Only Did it Once)? Do you call out or penalise members for unethical conduct? Do you refuse to accept images taken using unethical means?

'So and So' is a much bigger issue. You should be concentrating on stopping that.

One repeat offender in an estuarine environment said to me, in response to a discussion about ethical bird photography, that 'speeding boats was a bigger problem'.

There is no either/or in this scenario. If you think something else is having a bigger impact on birds, the simple answer is that you can be an ethical photographer and do something about other issues confronting birds. If you really do care about birds, then it is incumbent on all of us to do more.

You can't police it.

We have laws against speeding. It's impossible to police everywhere, all the time. It still happens. But we STILL have a law for it.

Everything we do disturbs the birds anyway so if you are worried, you should not take any photos at all.

This is a valid point. However, we will never stop bird photography. Therefore, it is better to adopt a realistic approach to what is and is not possible and lead by example. It isn't possible to stop people being birders or bird photographers, but it is possible to demonstrate that those activities can be successfully conducted in a way that has the lowest impact on our birdlife.

Birding brings in income needed to protect birds.

There is no doubt that in some countries the only thing saving vast tracts of forest is bird-related tourism. In this situation, the solution may be to only allow licenced and trained tour guides and operators to use high-impact techniques, such as call playback, to lure particular species in particular locations.

In this way, bird-related tourism is not impacted (in fact, licenced tour operators would get more business) and any negative impacts on bird populations can be monitored in a controlled way.

In Western Australia, under section 153 of the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016 it is an offence to disturb fauna without a lawful authority to do so. If a photographer determines that their activities are likely to take or disturb fauna, they can contact the Department of Biodiveristy, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA) Wildlife Licensing Section to apply for an appropriate licence.

Again, a low angle enabled a beautiful blur.
Common Bronzewing, Donnybrook

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