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Top Fifteen Bad Behaviours of Bird Photographers

Updated: Feb 18

Black-shouldered Kite, Western Australia
Black-shouldered Kite, Western Australia

Don't be alarmed if you look at the list below and realise that you have done one, or many, of the items on it. At some stage in our bird photography, especially as over-enthusiastic beginners, most of us have done things that in hindsight were not in the bird's best interests. The purpose of this list if not to villify, but to raise awareness and educate, both photographers and the public about what is and is not ideal bird photography behaviour.

Many photographers who do things do so out of ignorance or because they have been told by other, more experienced photographers (or social media 'influencers') that it is OK. If that is you, don't worry. The important thing is to learn. Once you know something really is not ok, just do your best to avoid ever doing it again. Also, please try to educate others: See How you can Make a Difference. It is the silence of the majority (the process of 'enabling') on these issues that is the main reason why unethical behaviours proliferate.

Most people who genuinely have the bird's best interests at heart, once informed, will do the right thing and feel better for it: See About.

  1. Using live bait - such as live mice (owls)/pinning worms to sticks

  2. Getting too close to nesting birds

  3. Deliberately flushing birds to get 'flight' shots

  4. Luring birds away from protection and into the OPEN where they are susceptible to predators

  5. Using call playback (especially with 'boom box')

  6. Using high powered flash directly on birds at night

  7. Pruning, trampling or otherwise altering native vegetation

  8. Disclosing exact locations of rare, vagrant or nesting birds on social media or on a public forum such as ebird

  9. Posting images of birds sitting on nests (or eggs), or baby birds in nests, on social media

  10. Entering private property or closed off areas

  11. Breaking the law

  12. Inappropriately or illegally feeding wild birds

  13. Chasing, crowding and/or failing to keep appropriate distance (especially rare or vagrant birds), including with a drone (or helicopter)

  14. Dishonest or misleading captioning

  15. Teaching others to do the above (or facilitating/enabling bad behaviour by others by silence)

Buller's Albatross at Lord Howe Island, New South Wales
Buller's Albatross, New South Wales

1. Using live bait - such as live mice (owls)/pinning worms to sticks

It is morally repugnant to sacrific the life of one animal just to get a photo of another. This is reflected in the prohibition against the use of live baiting in most renowned, and every responsible, photo competition and forum across the world.

"Here in Ontario, Canada, it's a circus every winter where the photographers are baiting owls with live mice, and some even uses Mallard ducks and bait on a fishing line, to get those award winning in-flight shots. It's really sad, and I wonder why North America doesn't have any laws or by-laws to protect the wildlife like our winter visitors. I'm from Norway, and we have laws and rules against baiting and harassment of wildlife."

In North America, for up to $3500 you can do workshops to get images of magnificent great grey owls pouncing on live mice (released by the workshop leader) in a snow covered field.

I once queried an image on social media of an owl about to catch a spot-lit mouse, asking whether the mouse had, in fact, been ‘tied down’. Another photographer replied, ‘No. You don’t need to tie them down because they tend to stay still under the lights.’

"(5) Live baiting is not permitted, neither is any means of baiting that may put an animal in danger or adversely affect its behaviour, either directly or through irresponsible habituation. Any other means of attraction, including bird seed or scent, must be declared in the caption for the Jury and us to review": Wildlife Photographer of the Year rules

2. Getting too close to nesting birds

Photographers must keep an appropriate distance from nesting birds. Nesting is the most critical and stressful time in a bird's life.

It is vitally important that photographers keep an appropriate distance from nesting birds so as to ensure that they do not:

  • accidentally, or deliberately, cause damage to the nest or nest site;

  • cause nest desertion or stress to the nesting adults or nestlings;

  • attract predators to the nest site; and/or

  • remain close enough to the nest site to elicit a behavioural response from the nesting bird(s) - such as ‘broken wing’ response or the nesting bird not returning immediately to the nest.

In any event, photographers must not, in relation to nesting birds:

  • damage or trample vegetation that results in expose a nest;

  • startle a bird, as that may cause it to accidentally break or eject the eggs or cause the premature eruption of young from the nest;

  • ‘garden’ the area around the nest by removing branches or other objects which may block a clear view of the nest thus increasing the exposure of the nesting birds to adverse weather and to predation;

  • modify the nest or its approaches in order to force the bird into a more photogenic position;

  • linger too long in the bird’s core territory;

  • visit nests in early mornings, at dusk or in inclement weather when any desertion by a parent may result in the eggs/young becoming cold;

  • use call playback in the vicinity of a nesting bird, which causes the bird to leave the nest to respond to the playback;

  • use flash on a nesting bird;

  • show undue attention to an otherwise well-camouflaged nest (eg birds nesting on the beach or in dense foliage);

  • walk to the nest and back along the same path, leaving a dead-end trail; and/or

  • act contrary to the law.

"Photographers should not photograph nesting/denning fauna. Stress and disturbance can cause the parents to move their young to a location that may not be as safe as the original one. Photographers spending time at a nest/den, even if the person is not disturbing the wildife, can open the nest up to an increased risk of predation. Photographers should recognise that their presence at a nest/den will reduce the likelihood [and frequency] of a parent returning with food thereby causing the young to go without food and warmth." Standards and Guidelines- Ethical Wildlife Photography, July 2021, Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions, Western Australia.

3. Deliberately flushing birds to get 'flight' shots

We all inadvertantly flush birds. Simply walking along a footpath will flush any bird in the way. The issue is when you deliberately startle birds, such as by making a loud noise or walking too close, in order to get an image of it taking off or flying.

This is commonly done with raptors perched in trees, waders or other waterbirds. Migratory waders are especially vulnerable to being flushed.

Australian Shelduck take off
Australian Shelduck, Western Australia

4. Luring birds away from protection and into the OPEN where they are susceptible to predators

The key problem with a lot of set up bird photography is that the photographers, wanting to get a 'clean' background, often arrange fake perches in the open. They then use techniques such as call playback, food or water to 'lure' birds to their fake perches. This practice puts birds at real risk of predation. Goshawks are the most common culprits.

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'.

If you are doing a set-up, or luring birds to a fake perch using food or water, you MUST ensure that you place the perches in areas where the birds have adequate protection from predators, such as under a tree or shrub. It is never acceptable to put a fake perch in an open area and then try to lure birds to it.

I recently watched an interview with a birder who has a feeder in her backyard. She was very excited to see a goshawk that had taken one of the birds in their garden, saying words to the effect, 'although it is sad to see the bird killed, it's, after all, just nature.'

However, in this instance it was not natural. The person almost certainly caused the death of the bird by encouraging birds to alter their natural feeding patterns and expose themselves to the risk of predation in a way that the bird would not do naturally. If you must have a feeder, it is encumbant on you to ensure that it is located in a protected environment where it can be accessed by small birds without the need to break shelter.

It is never acceptable to lure birds to fake perches using call playback (see below) for recreational birding purposes.

Christmas Island Goshawk
Christmas Island Goshawk

5. Using call playback (especially with 'boom box')

Call playback is a useful tool for research, conservation and survey purposes. However, there is no question that sooner or later the use of call playback for recreational birding without a licence to do so will be banned by all leading, and responsible, birding authorities. You can either wait for it to be enforced on you, or you can choose to do the right thing today and put away the boombox.

This is because call playback has been scientifically proven to incur energy costs, disrupt social systems, impact breeding behaviour, lead to pair break-ups and cause stress which leads to a shortened life expectancy.

Even without scientific/empirical evidence, it should be obvious from the fact that the bird reacts to the call playback that you are 'interfering' with or 'disturbing' the bird's natural behaviour. Deliberately interfering with wildlife, to its detriment, is illegal under most environmental legislation.

Ironically, the more a bird reacts to call playback, the more obvious it is that you are breaking the law.

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. A person is disturbing fauna is they engage in an activity that has the effect, wither directly or indirectly, of altering the natural behaviour of fauna to its detriment - these effects can be either short-term or long-term. Higher penalties apply to the unlawful disturbance of threatened and specially protected species.

If a photographer determines that their activities are likely to disturb fauna, they must contact the Department of Biodiveristy, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA) Wildlife Licensing Section via or (08) 9219 9831 to apply for an appropriate licence.

An example of how call playback could impact the survival of an entire species

Anecdotally, excessive use of call playback by birders on rare species has resulted in some rare species ceasing to call and/or breed altogether (and regardless of what birders may say, the vast majority of those using call playback do so for the rarer species, not the common ones).

For many years I have worked with a group to try and help save the critically endangered Western Ground Parrot. This is one of the rarest parrots in the world, with an estimated 150 birds left in the wild and no successful captive breeding record to date.

Due to its cryptic nature, the only way we can effectly monitor populations is by listening for bird calls. If the exact locations of these remaining wild birds are shared on social media, and birders (and bird photographers) then visit that area and use call playback to try and lure the birds into the open, not only are they endangering the individual bird in question (to predator attack), they run the risk that repeated use of call playback will result in the birds either ceasing to call, or worse, ceasing to breed.

If the birds cease to call, we can no longer monitor their population. If we cannot provide government authorities with evidence of the birds, we cannot get the funding needed to try and save a species from extinction.

6. Using high powered flash directly on birds at night

According to the Standards and Guidelines- Ethical Wildlife Photography, published by the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions, Western Australia in July 2021, photographers should "avoid the use of a direct flash, especially when shooting small mammals and sea turtles. Photographers are discouraged from using an artificial light source as nocturnal animals may be sensitive to light; a non-direct diffused flash will reduce the impact of photography on these species."

"Nocturnal wildlife must not be photographed with a white flash at night. Cameras that use flash with filters only letting through infrared light, such as some camera traps, are permissible": Rules, Nature’s Best Photography International Awards 2021

7. Pruning, trampling or otherwise altering native vegetation

It should be self-explanatory but all too frequently bird photographers trample through vegetation in hot pursuit of a bird. If getting to a bird means you have to cause damage to the habitat in which it lives, you must walk away. Remember, seeing or photographing a bird is a privilege, not a right.

"Photographers should not push through dense vegetation or enter restricted areas."

Standards and Guidelines- Ethical Wildlife Photography, July 2021, Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions, Western Australia.

"[A]t Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park in Humboldt County, ... [m]y wife and I had gone to see the great gray owl, when we arrived there was a seething mass of humanity... with their excessively large telephoto lenses, crashing through the brush near the kiosk, attempting to get a photograph of their elusive quarry with no regards to the owl's welfare or habitat."

8. Disclosing exact locations of rare, vagrant or nesting birds on social media or on a public forum such as ebird

Disclosing the exact location of a rare, vagrant or nesting bird on social media or a forum which is public, will have real consequences for the bird in question due to the sheer number of birders and bird photographers.

"Photographers should be aware of the potential consequences of sharing the location of a rare sighting with the broader community. Many species are shy and can easily be disturbed by a sudden increase in human presence. Other species are subject to illegal poaching and it is thus inadvisable to release information pertaining to the location and date of a sighting. Removing EXIF data from a photos will ensure GPS co-ordinates will not be attached to it."

Standards and Guidelines- Ethical Wildlife Photography, July 2021, Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions, Western Australia.

Rare Red Goshawk in a tree
Rare Red Goshawk

The Red Goshawk is the rarest and most endangered raptor in Australia. When I came across this bird, I only divulged its location to the relevant authority. I would never disclose the exact location on social media or a public bird sighting site such as E-bird.

9. Posting images of birds sitting on nests (or eggs), or baby birds in nests, on social media

This 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.

"Reputable forums should prohibit members from posting/ publishing images of nesting animals and images gained unethically."

Standards and Guidelines- Ethical Wildlife Photography, July 2021, Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions, Western Australia.

When is it ok to post nesting bird images?

It is 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. However, the problem is that, once you make one exception, it raises the question of where to draw the line and makes the life of moderators and administrators (and judges) difficult.

I used to think that photographs of birds in nesting tree hollows is probably ok too. However, my friend recently told me about an experience she had visiting one of the top birding areas in Queensland where there were several pairs of eclectus parrots nesting in one tree. When she arrived, every single parrot in the tree took off, including those that had been in the hollows. When one considers that the location of the nesting parrots was available on ebird and that potentially hundreds of birders visit the national park each day, the impact of birders visiting that one nesting tree, and the resulting stress on the birds, would be enormous and clearly not in the best interests of the parrots.

Livecam Feeds

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.

Resource/educational/scientific texts

The key issue with the posting of nesting bird images relates to public fora/social media and competitions where other members of the photography public, upon seeing the image and its popularity, will be encouraged to take a similar photo.

Nesting bird images are, however, also an important educational tool as regards species habits and identification. So, for instance, there is no problem with these types of images where they are published in scientific or educational texts, such as the Handbook of the Birds of the World or even bird guides.

Black-fronted Dotterel, Fitzgerald River National Park, WA
Black-fronted Dotterel, Fitzgerald River National Park, WA

10. Entering private property or closed off areas

This should be self-evident. Unfortunately, it is still common for bird photographers, in particular, who seem to think they have a greater right than others to enter into areas closed-off to the public.

Three photographers with large and active social media accounts (and big lenses) were recently photographed entering into an area that had been closed off due to the presence of nesting terns. Instead of being apologetic, they proceeded to verbally abuse the person who had caught them out. The abuse was so bad that a passer-by stayed close to check that the person being abused was ok.

11. Breaking the law

This should be self-evident.

12. Inappropriately or illegally feeding wild birds

Whilst it may be encouraged by some birding authorities in other parts of the world, it should be remembered that feeding native fauna is illegal in some states, and expressly discouraged by all conservation organisations, in Australia.

"Using food to attract animals can disrupt their natural diet and behaviour and may increase their chances of predation by encouraging them to move from appropriate shelter or remain in a particular location for an extended period of time."

Standards and Guidelines- Ethical Wildlife Photography, July 2021, Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions, Western Australia.

In Western Australia, under section 155 of the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016, it is an offence to feed fauna.

If you must feed birds, ensure that you only put out natural food (ie not bread!), only in a small amount and clean and steralise the bird feeder each day (See The Birds at My Table - Why we feed wild birds and why it matters by Darryl Jones).

"Thirty per cent of the greenfinch population declined over about a five-year period because of a disease that went through them, all because of feeders [in the UK]... Really, one of the most important things is keeping the feeder clean:" Darryl Jones' journey from ecology expert to evangelistic bird feeder .

Setting up a fake perch in the open and putting out food to bring small and difficult to photograph birds in is irresponsible and unethical: See 'Luring birds away from protection and into the OPEN where they are susceptible to predators'.

When is it ok to feed the birds (in Australia)?

When you have a licence to do so - for instance, a tourist resort may have permission to feed wild birds.

When it is for ethics approved research or survey purposes, such as a pelagic bird field trip. In this case, it is critically important that we monitor the status of pelagic bird populations on a regular basis.

When you are simply 'relocating' road kill to a safer area so that it can be eaten by raptors without the danger of a vehicle strike.

13. Chasing, crowding and/or failing to keep appropriate distance (especially rare or vagrant birds)

Whenever a rare bird or vagrant appears on our shores I dread what will happen. Whilst most 'birders' are content to see the bird through a digiscope or binoculars, thus having minimal impact on the bird, bird photographers, in many cases desperate to get an image of a species they think they may never see again, are not so cautious. Many photographers act, as one person observed in a discussion forum, "as if a photo of bird is a trophy and they are on a desperate treasure hunt."

When one considers that in many cases not only is the bird separated from its own kind and habitat, but also very likely it will never be able to return, what joy can there be in photographing such a tragic circumstance?

"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." Comment on a bird forum

It is not uncommon to see bird photographers not only crowding or chasing the vagrant or rare bird, but entering illegally onto private prioperty, trampling on vegetation and other animals and even stepping over other 'common' netsing birds.

My friend told me she was going to see a rare bird that had shown up at a local wetland. The location and images of the bird had already been posted on social media and was 'big news' amongst the birding community. I expressed my concern for the bird and it being harassed by photographers. The next day she said she had spoken with one of the photographers who had gone out to photograph the bird and they admitted to her that they had had to walk across the wetland through a group of nesting plovers to get to it as it was 'out in the middle'.

Clause 6.1.1 of the Standards and Guidelines- Ethical Wildlife Photography provides that photographers should treat all species of native fauna with equal respect. It is not acceptable to disturb common species to get access to rarer species.

Pacific Gull, Western Australia
Pacific Gull

Flying a drone (or helicopter!) too closely over birds

Drone photography is becoming increasingly common and can result in some incredible images. However, birds, in particular, are very stressed by 'flying objects' (anyone who has ever kept a caged bird can tell you they notice anything in the sky, even a 747 jet flying overhead elicits a warning call and heightened alertness).

You should not fly or hover a drone too closely over an area that is inhabited by birds, let alone take an image of the flushed birds using the drone.

(3) You must not do anything to injure or distress an animal or damage its habitat in an attempt to secure an image. This includes flying (or flying a drone) too low or noisily over an animal – an animal’s welfare must come first.

14. Dishonest or misleading captioning

Be transparent about how a photograph was made.

"Brian Skerry, a longtime National Geographic photographer who specializes in marine wildlife, puts it this way: “If I’m taking a picture of a tiger shark and don’t disclose the use of chum to attract it, in the caption or when questioned, then I’m being dishonest. In the most basic terms, if the intent is to deceive the viewer, then it’s wrong.” This applies to processing our photos as well, he points out. Correcting color, for example, is fine. But if you alter the reality of a scene by cloning out or adding elements that weren’t there to begin with, you’re crossing a line in photojournalism."

If you're not comfortable sharing how you got the shot, that’s your inner voice telling you that you might not have made the best choice in getting it.

15. Teaching others to do the above (or facilitating/enabling bad behaviour by others by silence)

The next generation

Recently I heard a story of someone coming across a young bird photographer using call playback with a boombox under the supervision of his parent, also a bird photographer (and both prolific on social media).

On another occasion, I saw a young bird photographer list his 'heros'. The top photographer he listed has an international reputation as one of the most unethical bird photographers in the world and regularly sets up fake perches in the open, lures birds in using call playback (listing speakers as one of the 'essential' birding items), pins worms to sticks, feeding wild birds out of the hand using live mealworms and endorses live bait photography (in particular, owls with live mice) on a social media hub.

It is discouraging that the next generation is growing up not only not being taught about ethics and what is and is not in the best interests of the bird (as opposed to bird photography), but openly encouraged, sometimes by parents, to engage in unethical practices. The leading driver of this behaviour is unquestionably ego a.k.a. 'popularity' on social media.

The other key problem is that other 'top bird' photographers, not only don't openly condemn unethical practices (even generally), they regularly openly praise the offending photographers for their images, especially where such photographers have a large social media presence (eg over 100k, some, over 200K, followers), when they must know that many of those images were not taken in the best interests of the birds (see How to Identify Stressed Birds on Social Media).

If other top bird photographers continue to enable and praise the leading perpetrators of unethical conduct, what hope is there for the younger generation of bird photographers?

“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

Pied Stilts, Western Australian birdlife
Pied Stilts

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