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The Jerk

When responsible birders refuse to act, the jerks win.


Video captures all. Police are understandably leery of iPhones that record every arrest. Movie star wannabes leak their private sex tapes to the Internet to raise lackluster careers from the dead. Even the misdeeds of birders and photographers are plastered on Youtube.

Jerkdom is in the public domain. Stroll across a wildlife preserve to photograph a snowy owl and your jerkedness will be shared with the world. There is no amount of camouflage that will hide you from prying eyes.

I photograph birds. I know how enticing it can be. Just a few more feet…Just a little closer…

Then the owl does what owls always do – it flies. Now no one with you can enjoy the bird. No one will be able to photograph the owl from a safe distance. The owl burns fat that might help it through the winter. The owl has been jerked.

I recently photographed a snowy owl in Nebraska. I had only a couple of hours to look for the bird, and I arrived early. The owl squatted along the roadside, warming in the sun. I easily photographed the bird from a close distance while seated in my rental car. The bird did not move or stir.

I knew at that moment I had been presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I cannot imagine ever again being face-to-face with such a compliant snowy owl. I have no expectation that such an encounter will come my way again. There are times when opportunity is given rather than earned.

I know this because I have been a jerk. As a young birder I cared little for the bird; I needed to make a mark. Why should I care a whit if the bird flies? I have the photo! I scored!

Now I am older, approaching old. I believe that there is no photograph worth displacing a bird. New lenses and high-resolution digital cameras now allow us to watch and record birds at a distance. From afar they go about their lives, and we are allowed an intimate view of what their lives are like.

Birders and photographers are too tolerant of jerks. Most birders are nice people who would like to spend a peaceful day watching a snowy owl, and nothing more. But don’t we also have a responsibility to the bird itself? A snowy owl knows only one response to a human trespasser – fly far, far away. If we don’t stand between the jerks and the owls, who will?

Birding, like photography and hunting, is a consumptive recreation. But while hunters are limited in the degree they can reduce their consumption (in the end, the prey still dies), birders and photographers are able to significantly reduce their impacts. All that is needed is a little common sense.

Common sense, however, is not evenly distributed across the population. There will always be jerks believing that birds were placed on this planet for their private entertainment. In these rare cases, birders and photographers must intervene.

Here are ABA’s Principles of Birding Ethics. The rules are simple and easy to follow. Take a close look at 4(b):

If you witness unethical birding behavior, assess the situation, and intervene if you think it prudent. When interceding, inform the person(s) of the inappropriate action, and attempt, within reason, to have it stopped. If the behavior continues, document it, and notify appropriate individuals or organizations.

Joel Jorgensen is Nongame Bird Program Manager for Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. Joel also manages the Nebraska Bird Digest on the web. Whooping cranes were recently reported from the Platte, and here is Joel’s admonition (diplomatic, if you ask me):

With word reaching this discussion group about possible Whooping Cranes in central Nebraska, I would ask folks on this list to remind those that are not on this list of proper etiquette whenever coming across this species. This is particularly the case with the influx of out-of-state birds that may be visiting the state as a result of the Common Crane.

Snowy Owl NE

As everyone knows, Whooping Cranes are state and federally-listed as endangered. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) and Nebraska’s Nongame and Endangered Species Conservation Act prohibits harassment, harm, and pursuit of whooping cranes including any intentional or negligent act or omission that creates the likelihood of injury to wildlife by annoying it in such a way that significantly disrupts normal behavior patterns, such as feeding or roosting. Harassment includes flushing the birds to flight during observation.

Instances of Whooping Crane harassment by wildlife photographers has increased in the past couple years. In spring 2010 in Nebraska, there were 3-4 instances of individuals approaching Whooping Cranes on foot in attempts to get better photos. In doing so, at least two of these individuals trespassed on private property. One of these cases was turned over to law enforcement and I anticipate law enforcement will be increasingly involved in future instances.

Whooping Cranes should never, ever, be approached on foot. Observers should always view Whooping Cranes from a vehicle or a blind and, ideally, stay 2000 ft. from any birds.

If you see someone approaching, harassing, or shooting a Whooping Crane, please collect some details (e.g., license plate #, description) and contact law enforcement.

I apologize for the lecture. Furthermore, I wish Whooping Crane location information could be provided freely to the public so everyone could take every opportunity to see this species. I am disappointed a few bad eggs ruin it for all the good eggs.

I am disappointed too, but I accept that bad eggs ruin good eggs. Yes, birds may or may not be harmed by this type of irresponsible behavior. There is no doubt, however, that birding itself is damaged. When responsible birders refuse to act, the jerks win.

Enjoy the show!

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Ted Lee Eubanks

Ted Lee Eubanks

Ted Lee Eubanks is president and CEO of Fermata Inc. an Austin-based global leader is sustainable tourism and outdoor recreation. Eubanks and Fermata were responsible for developing the first birding trails, in Texas, in the early 1990s. He has served on the national boards of Audubon and the CLO, and received the first ABA Chan Robbins Award in 2000. Eubanks writes extensively about birds, conservation, and sustainability, and has coauthored two books about birds (The Birdlife of Houston, Galveston, and the Upper Texas Coast, and Finding Birds on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail). To continue his work connecting people to places, birders to birds, Eubanks has formed a new company, Great American Trails, which is using new technologies to attract new constituents to the outdoors.
Ted Lee Eubanks

Latest posts by Ted Lee Eubanks (see all)

  • Indeed, this guy should have a scarlet letter “J” tatooed directly to his forehead… (The only mis-chosen word in the post is “Enjoy” in the final phrase “Enjoy the show!”)

  • Bird Nut

    In case anyone questions the energy costs of flying, flushing birds discourages many species from returning to their preferred roosts. Even if not flushed immediately, noisy human intrusions eventually convince certain species to move on.

    At our local Audubon meeting, it was described that photographers “with big lenses” were flushing the 2 local snowy owls… several folks were upset about it.

    Also in our area, we have some rosy finches during the winter time that descend from the highlands every evening to roost in some abandoned Cliff Swallow nests at night. I’ve been birding for a couple decades, but have only recently purchased a high-end point-and-shoot (not an SLR) camera with built-in 140x zoom for bird photos. So last month, I took some photos of these rosy finches standing along the edge of the road at the base of the cliffs. At full zoom, the photos were grainy, but enough to journal my birding experience, and even enough to distinguish between the Black & Gray-Crowned Rosy-Finches. So I posted them to my flickr photostream which serves as my birding photo journal, as well as linking them to my eBird observations.

    A few weeks later, I see that another flickr user, a professional photographer, has posted photos of the same birds… recognizable by the abandoned nests. But wow, these are beautiful, vivid, striking photos! I’m so impresssed that I decide that I have to buy an SLR with a big zoom. So I email the photographer for info, and discover that a 400mm lens is only 8x zoom, similar to a pair of binoculars, and that to get good photos, the key is always to get within 20 feet or so of your subject.

    So how then did this professional photographer get such stunning photos of the rosy finches? Yes, he climbed the cliffs!

    After learning this, I’m keeping my point-and-shoot and I’ll be happy with grainy photos! Or maybe I’ll try to get digiscoping to work. I’m also thinking to make certain eBird observations private, especially if birding becomes more popular.

    Thanks for posting this Ted. Here are a couple of related topics that would be nice to see in a future post.

    • Trompling of native plant seedlings & flowers. Birders like to get off the beaten path, and often don’t look down to see the fragile growth they’re stepping on.
    • Over-playing birdsong audio from the iPhone.
    • Feeding House Sparrows, and their affect on native bird populations… the newer birders seem to think they’re cute, and have no clue about what they do to native birds.
  • @cyberthrush, I should know better than to try irony on a birding blog 🙂


  • Bonnie

    Thanks for tackling this subject. I’ve seen the occasional jerk at ABA conferences and/or on tours go on to encroach on a bird even after the trip leaders have specifically announced that everyone in the group remain at a distance that will allow viewing the birds while minimizing stressing or otherwise disturbing the birds.

    It is up to us as birders, birdwatchers, whatever we call ourselves to do the right thing by the birds.

  • Great post! It is indeed very knowledgeable. I look forward for more post from you.

  • Shawneen

    Good post, Ted. I, too, in my youth could be over zealous with my camera and am thankful that with maturity my behavior has changed.

    We just witnessed some rather poor behavior between a woman photographer and two Whooping Cranes. We were photographing two cranes (from inside the car) in a pasture near the Big Tree at Goose Island State Park near Aransas NWR a week ago today. We watched a woman drive her car to where the pair was walking and stride quickly across the street directly at them with her long lens. Needless to say they spooked and flew away. Had she just been patient and stayed in her car, she would have been able to get better photos (which we were hoping to also get). Instead we all lost, particularly the cranes who are struggling to survive this winter given the recent drought.

  • Thanks for the comments, Shawneen. I am sure that we have all seen such behavior, and those of us who started young no doubt sinned as well. The whooping crane case is special, as you know. The ESA comes into play. This is precisely why Joel posted his warning on the NE bird digest. There have been problems with cranes and photographers there in the past. I am certain that this is a common problem in Texas, but enforcement is nonexistent. This is precisely why we need to police ourselves. If not, more states will end up like NE, where whooping crane sightings are off-limits for their web digest.

    This is the same issue with rarities. There have been numerous conflicts between users and protected lands in the Rio Grande Valley (the yellow-faced grassquit comes to mind). As you point out, the best way to see and photograph birds is to become invisible, as in a car. Absent a blind, simply sit still and wait. If the bird does not come close, try again some other time. In other words, learn to pass. In fact, that is the mark of a great birder, in my opinion. A great birder learns to pass on birds when the bird’s well being is at stake.In that vein, don’t get me started on tapes, iPhone recordings, etc. I can only open one worm can at a time.

  • birdiehaynes

    Thanks for this post, I am a fairly young birder and easily excitable. I try my best not to be an infringement on the birds and their habitat. I just can’t understand people who push the birds. I have learned that when the bird seems to become alert to your presence, and really eying you, stop. You would do good take a few steps back so as to put the bird at ease. I like to take photos, but if the bird flushes, what good is that to you or the bird. Body language in birds is not that hard to read. An uncomfortable bird does not make an enjoyable photograph either. Also upon approach, never move directly towards the bird and try not to look directly at it. If you move at a diagonal angle to get a better vantage point, and act as if you don’t see the bird, they feel much more comfortable… and maybe don’t think you are stalking them to make a meal of them. When I say approach, with waterfowl, waders, raptors and any rarities in particular, I am meaning probably no closer than 200 feet. If I can’t get a photo, oh well, I am a birder first. Pointing at a bird seems to freak them out real good too.
    There is a time and place for playback and pishing also, so long as it is not overdone. I once had to shush a lady for pishing in a field where we were hoping for a Henslow’s Sparrow. I shushed her because a Northern Harrier was also looking for sparrows in this field. It was skimming the grasses not 100 feet from us. I just didn’t understand why she would want to pish a sparrow up, only to have it snatched right in front of our eyes.
    Another instance was a Vermilion Flycatcher that was found near a small town airport. A group of us had been scouring the area for hours with no luck. When we finally saw the bird it was pretty far out in the field on some stubble. One of the photographers of the group began to use playback. The bird came to a tree only about 15 feet in front of us. The playback was on a loop… and just kept going. The poor Vermilion was getting pretty frantic hoping from limb to limb looking for the intruder. I turned to the fellow and politely said “I don’t think we need that anymore”. Silence from the birder. “We don’t want him to feel harrassed” I said. His reply, ” Oh, we’re not harrasing him. ” At this point, he did stop the playback. Again,body language of the bird was pretty obvious. This was a bird hundreds of miles north of it’s normal wintering range. All of a sudden a rival is trying to move in. He won’t show himself and he won’t shut up! I can just imagine this little fellows frustration! ” Show yourself, let’s fight or SHUT UP you coward!”
    What it all boils down to is common sense and consideration for others, both fellow birder and the birds themselves. I would suggest to some photographers is to slow down and observe birds for a while. Learn their body language, you will find that they more even more interesting to observe than to photograph. You’ll get better photos in the long run!
    Happy birding!

  • I’m a photographer and also a wildlife rehabilitator, so I live by the premise that no photo is worth displacing or stressing a bird — putting aside the accidental situations we all find ourselves in, flushing a bird on a trail and so forth. I wish all other photographers shared this perspective, but some obviously don’t. I have no issue talking to them when I’m in the field, and although the responses are mixed, the guys with the Hubble lenses are not quick to acquiesce to their shortcomings in this regard. I’ve once had to fend off some fists literally swinging for my head, but that was for interceding with a woman whose children were harming oiled birds during an oil spill.

    The issue with Snowy Owls up at Boundary Bay is that it’s difficult to reach the ethics violators in the marsh, to even speak with them. To address them in the field where they’re stalking the owls, would mean disturbing the owls ourselves. So, I found it a frustrating proposition to witness and then not be able to do anything about the behavior. Pointing it out on Flickr and at my blog generated a bit of hate mail and a lot of attitude and entitlement. It brings out the worst.

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