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Birding Ethics, Going Forward

A little while ago in this forum, we talked about “the next big idea”–make that big ideas, plural–for bird conservation. Let’s shift gears a bit now, to the somewhat more elusive matter of birding ethics.

Ethical behavior is a frequent concern for the birding community, and that’s a good thing. It means we’re aware. We birders care. We understand that our behaviors have consequences–for the birds themselves, for our human companions, and for the broader birding community.

Consider the 2013-2014 Snowy Owl invasion. There were so many ethical angles. We discussed everything, from “owl baiting” to aircraft safety, from our collective carbon footprint to local privacy concerns. It’s a tribute to the birding community that ethics were a central aspect of this once-in-a-generation birding event.


02-letters [LEFT]All the letters in the January/February 2014 Birding deal, in one way or another, with the question of birding ethics. Again: We’re aware, we birders care, we try to understand. It’s unusual, to say the least, to encounter a birder who birds in an ethical vacuum, entirely unaware of and unconcerned about the consequences of his or her behavior. So, what, in your view, are some of the big ethical issues of our day?

A few ground rules, please. First, to the extent possible, let’s try to focus this discussion on the present and, especially, the future. What are the big issues, going forward? Second, where are you coming from? What I mean is: What experiences and perspectives have led you to your ethical outlook? Third, who or what (birds? other birders? non-birders? local laws and traditions?) is being affected by your behavior?

I said at the end of my blog post from yesterday, “I look forward to the learning experience.” Today I can say, “I look forward to becoming a better–that is to say, a more ethical–birder.”

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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives of the ABA. He is the author of more than 100 magazine and journal articles, and has written four recent books, including an ABA title, the ABA Guide to Birds of Colorado. Floyd is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and state ornithological society meetings, and he has served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations. Mainly, he listens to birds at night.
Ted Floyd

Latest posts by Ted Floyd (see all)

  • Ted Floyd

    Can I start off (who’s to stop me?) with a remark on situational ethics?

    Consider the ethical dilemma of playback and Painted Buntings. In situation (a), I’m all by myself in a remote and rarely-if-ever birded canyon, and I come upon a dazzlingly beautiful alternate adult male Painted Bunting, but it’s far away, and I desire a better view. In situation (b), I’m in the same situation, but with a birding companion who “needs” the bird. And in situation (c), I’m on a field trip with a group of eighty mildly unruly but basically good-natured third graders who will be awed to the point of glorious silence by the life-changing apparition of an impossibly blue, red, and green songbird.

    Here are my ethical judgments:

    In situation (a), I don’t use playback. It’s a personal aesthetic thing. It’s not about the welfare of the bird. It’s about my own enjoyment. I just don’t enjoy looking at birds that have been “taped in.” In situation (b), it’s up to my companion. If the person mildly or strongly wishes to use playback, we’ll do so. If the person is truly neutral (an unlikely scenario, I believe), then we’ll defer to my wishes and not use playback. In situation (c), there is a strong imperative, I believe, to use playback. Getting eighty, or just eight, or even one or two third graders fired up about the natural world is an urgent need, and it ought to be pursued “by any means necessary.” Mind you, I wouldn’t do it if it were illegal (e.g., in a U.S. national park or national wildlife refuge). Otherwise, I would consider it unethical, in situation (c), not to use playback. The stakes are too high.

    There you have it: Three situations, three different ethical judgments, and I haven’t even touched on the question of avian welfare!

    • Lammerguy

      The three situations are all posed within an assumption that using playbacks, at least on painted buntings has an adverse effect on the bird. I am not aware of any evidence that it is. Painted bunting males don’t seem to think there is anything wrong with singing all day next to other bunting territories. Singing does consume calories and time to acquire calories, but will one moment of drawing a bird’s attention amount to anything when compared to flying from southern Mexico or even singing all day? Note: I do accept that playbacks are out of place in National Parks and at popular birding destinations.

  • Joan Czapalay

    Good question to raise, Ted. And I appreciate your “it depends” answer to playbacks.I struggle with ethical dilemmas around birding: I have a Nova Scotia list, but I have to consider whether or not to drive my small, fuel efficient car to chase a rare bird. I so wanted to see the Bean Goose in Yarmouth, but felt I would have to tie it in with a trip to visit my daughter and to help with a Christmas Bird Count. The snow storms in December decided for me. No tick. What about the energy use for world travel for a world list? Is it ethical to make a list other than a Green list? Interested in what others think.

    • Terry Bronson

      Regarding world travel, the planes are flying anyway and are almost always completely full these days, so the amount of extra fuel consumption caused by the weight of one additional person and his or her luggage has to be negligible. Of course, if one charters a plane, that’s a completely different situation.

      So too for the use of trains, buses, and regularly scheduled pickups by lodges. Of course, if the person rents a car solely for the purpose of chasing a bird, that does have an impact–though admittedly small. However, if in the context of the person being on vacation, that chase becomes even more marginal in energy use since the vehicle is used for other vacation purposes.

      So I don’t think ethics should even come into play for travel in almost all situations. Only when the person charters a plane (in reality, how many of us have the bucks to do so?) and/or rents a car solely for the purpose of chasing a bird should the question of ethics arise.

      • Ted Floyd

        Thanks to Terry Bronson for daring to question the conventional wisdom that travel isn’t necessarily the evil it’s often portrayed to be. I happen to disagree somewhat with Terry, but that doesn’t diminish my admiration for his taking a stand.

        As to my disagreement, I opine that Terry underestimates the extent to which birders do, in fact, travel long distances to chase. I’ve lived in three big western states (Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada), and it’s easy and relatively cheap to make a 500-mile round trip drive for a rarity. Multiply that by, say, X carloads of birders for a decent rarity, and then multiply that by Y rarities per year, and the carbon starts to pile up, or, rather, to aerosolize.

        Still, I go back to “situational ethics.” If you’ve packed the Prius full of grade schoolers who otherwise would be playing Minion Rush and eating beef jerky made in China, is it okay to make the long drive for a stakeout state mega? I think so. If it’s just you in your Chevy Suburban, fine, but think about paying out some carbon guilt: Plant native shrubs, walk to the farmer’s market to buy local fruit and veggies, and donate to the ABA… 😉

      • Alan Wormington

        The rationale here is pretty strange. So I rent a car to chase a bird, then the “question of ethics arise?” Really? But if I fly 2000 miles to take my family to DisneyWorld, that’s ok? Or suppose I rent a car and drive 1000 miles to visit a parent for the weekend, is that ok? It’s truly weird that as soon as “chasing a bird” enters the picture, one is instantly labelled as destroying the planet. Weird indeed. If one were REALLY interested in reducing waste, surely instead we should be discussing people who have 3+ children (= a growing population), children that will use WAY more resources than some poor sap chasing a rarity once in a while.

  • Brooke McDonald

    I’ve been musing lately on the difference between ethics and sportsmanship or fieldcraft.

    Taping a bird and baiting an owl may not be unethical, but they’re not sporting and they’re a cheap substitution for good field skills.

    • Lee Hoy

      If “owl baiting” is poor field skills, then so is EVERY other form of bird feeding. I have never baited an owl, but I don’t understand the difference in feeding an owl and putting seed in a feeder, sugar water in a hummingbird feeder, placing a carcass for raptors, and the list goes on.

      I think it is fine for people to have such opinions, just be sure you are consistent in your argument. So, if playing a bird call is poor sportsmanship, so is EVERY other action that causes a bird to take notice of your presence. Is it sporting that most people see Spotted Owls in virtually the same place? I would imagine according to your definition above that it is not.

      Of course, I have had birds pop up into view just because I walked by or my clothes rustle. Seems to me the problem isn’t necessarily a specific technique as it is a combination of factors. One of the biggest factors is intent such as the photographer in Florida that is accused of forcing Snail Kites off the nest for photographs. I think we would all agree that is unethical, poor sportsmanship, and, in fact, illegal. However, is putting out millet in a tube feeder to specifically attract a Painted Bunting to my central Texas yard for a photograph unethical?

      I think birders are WAY too quick to apply a label of unethical, harmful, dubious, etc. to many activities just because it is something they themselves might not do.

      As the number of birders increase the conversation is critical. Let’s just make sure we have thought through the arguments about what is truly unethical or “poor field skills” before we “convict” others. I wonder how many birds I have kept from a nest without even realizing I was standing near one? The very fact we walk out our front door has an impact on the birds around us.

      • f

        Baiting owls by roadside is unethical. Especially winter owls. Snowy, Great Grey and Hawk Owls are not encountered in deep forest. They are encountered by birders and photographers (notice I separate the two) by roadsides and large open areas. Baiting an owl by the roadside draws the owl into an area where the likelihood of it being hurt by passing cars is incredibly reckless. You can debate whether bird feeding is unethical, creating dependency and the like, but baiting owls by roadside would be akin to smearing peanut butter on the middle of the road. While you are there, it is relatively safe as most cars slow down to avoid you. Once you are gone however, no such passive speed bump exists.

        • I suppose we could spend forever coming up with very specific feeding locations and totally miss the point I was making above. If that is enjoyable, have a blast. I would be the first to let someone have it for baiting at roadside. Yes, your false dichotomy of birders and photographers (as if you have to be one or the other) was easily noticeable. Nevertheless, you didn’t disprove anything I said above other than create one very specific example. I guess it would be like a birder (without a camera – I mean a birder ONLY) moving branches near a Black-capped Vireo nest to get a better life view? That too would be unethical? Note: All sarcasm implied, intended, and enjoyed. P.S. I have seen all three species AWAY from roads.

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  • Skinnylegs

    This is not about us. It’s not about our ticks, our photos, our name in eBird, rudeness to other birders or wowing with clever argument. It’s about birds. What’s good for them and what they’re entitled to. Period. Playback is a bridge too far, more habitat destruction, poisoned waters, polluted air. Using playback to flush and position birds for photos or speculatively lure migrant rarities into view is harassing and unethical. Period. We invented leaders so that we would be relieved of all this hairsplitting obfuscation and be held, like it or not to a high standard. So where the hell are they.

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