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How to Identify Stressed Birds on Social Media

Updated: Dec 12, 2022

Stressed/Agitated Striated Pardalote
Stressed/Agitated Striated Pardalote

The purpose of this brief article, is to help educate members of the public and, in particular, bird photographers to recognise whether or not a bird in an image is stressed or agitated. It is important to be able to recognise the signs, as someone 'following' bird photography on social media so that you do not inadvertantly reward unethical behaviour.

Recently, an experienced scientist working with endangered animals told me that she had shocked a bird photographer who was showing her pictures by being able to accurately identify which of the photos had been taken using call playback, and which had not.

There are several key signs that you can use to identify whether a photographer is causing stress to the birds by getting too close to a nesting bird or by using call playback to lure the bird closer. The use of call playback has been shown not only to put to a bird in immediate danger of predation (eg if called into the open), but also to be likely to raise its stress levels to its detriment, both short term and long term (eg by shortening it's lifespan, altering breeding behaviour etc).

Key signs that a bird is (outwardly) stressed or agitated include some or all of the following:

  • tail erect;

  • crest or head feathers erect;

  • 'rigid' stance;

  • drooping wings;

  • eye on photographer (side on or front on);

  • uncharacteristic willingness to come close to the photographer; and or

  • 'passionately' calling.

It does occasionally happen that photographers capture birds engaging in these behaviours naturally, such as during a territorial dispute with another male. Therefore, you can't make a judgement from one or two images of birds exhibiting those signs. However, if a particular photographer has many images of birds exhibiting the above behaviours, consistently fails to explain the circumstances of the images, and/or many of those images are of rare or normally secretive birds sitting up on bespoke branches with clear backgrounds, then it is a very reasonable assumption to make that he or she is regularly using call playback. #donotlike #unfollow

One of the sad consequences of the over use of call playback in bird photography, is that we are only seeing images of birds in alert postures (ie stressed birds), rather than engaging in natural, relaxed behaviours. In Australia, the vast majority of grasswren (a shy, often elusive, bird) images appear to be taken using call playback. The result is that we rarely see images, like the one below, of two birds having a sand bath.

Western Grasswrens having a sand bath
Western Grasswrens having a sand bath

Examples of Stressed Bird Images

In the images above and below, you can see that the 'head' feathers of the bird are sitting up like a crest. It's watching the photographer and has a very 'alert' stance.

I took these images before I realised what was actually happening. Although I couldn't see a nest anywhere, it became obvious from the multiple prey items in the bird's bill (small birds do not usually carry multiple prey in their bill unless they are feeding babies in a nest), it's 'crest', it's reluctance to move away and it's general demeanour that it was upset by my presence in the vicinity of a nest.

I quickly retreated and left the area. I have posted these images here as they provide a good illustration of what an agitated bird looks like, but I would never post them on social media.

I have experienced this same behaviour with chats (once with a white-fronted chat and again with a crimson chat which flew around my head with food in its bill, emitting an eerie, plantive cry). On each occassion it occurred I had no idea where the nest was but from their behaviour I guessed that it was close-by so I immediately left the area.

Stressed/Agitated Striated Pardalote
Stressed/Agitated Striated Pardalote

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