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ICYMI: We Love The Jerk?

The ABA Blog has been in existence for almost 7 years, and there’s a lot of good content back in the archives that deserves an audience now that it might not have received way back when. So, semi-regularly we will bring some of that stuff back. Here’s one by ABA President Jeff Gordon about how much is too much when approaching birds, and how do we weigh the affect on birds and birders against the attention that those experiences (and photos) often get. It’s a tight rope to be sure!


image from

Peregrine Falcon strafing Snowy Owl, photo ©Rick Remington

“He’s a no good so and so, but she’ll never let him go / Though she knows it will never work, she loves the jerk / She loves the jerk.”

–John Hiatt, “She Loves The Jerk”

A friend of mine once observed that we often admire qualities in birds that we find irritating or even abhorrent in people. She was thinking in particular of the Great Kiskadee, a spectacular flycatcher whose garish dress and loudmouthedness she compared to a stereotypical used car salesman. Love it in the bird, hate it in the human. She was joking, of course. Mostly.

In a parallel but more serious vein, I was really struck by the juxtaposition of two blog posts yesterday about Snowy Owls and the trials they have faced this winter as so many have come south: Ted Eubanks’ here on the ABA blog and Greg Neise’s at the North American Birding Blog.

They’re both great posts, well-crafted and thought-provoking, and I find myself largely in agreement with the sentiments expressed in both of them. But I can’t help feeling there’s a double standard at play so extreme that it demands some careful consideration. Not so much in the posts themselves, but in the responses they’ve gotten.

Greg’s story of the Peregrine/Snowy encounter was greeted with comments like this:


“that was incredible, oh to have just one of these encounters, lucky ducks!”

“Whoa. Totally awesome to see. I’m glad they got photos to share with the rest of us. Wow, wow, wow!”

While the video of the owl being flushed that Ted links to inspires such disgust in cyberthrush that he suggests that, “… this guy should have a scarlet letter ‘J’ tatooed directly to his forehead,” recalling both the extreme social ostracism of The Scarlet Letter as well as Brad Pitt’s punishment for captured Nazis in Inglourious Basterds. And cyberthrush isn’t alone in his outrage. The internet has been groaning with the cries of birders protesting the flushing of Snowies, as any recent reader of the New York Birding List can attest.

In short, when a birder/photographer harasses a Snowy Owl, oafishly flushing it once, we’re ready to light the torches and grab the pitch forks. But when a Peregrine Falcon mercilessly strafes a Snowy Owl again and again for five minutes, “…we [are] happy just to witness one of nature’s greatest gifts.”

I’m not suggesting that one set of these reactions is wrong and the other right. But the differences sure are striking.

Of course, I get it. It feels vastly different seeing a human clumsily and needlessly flush a bird versus watching a Peregrine use its consummate aeronautic skills to force one to throw its talons in the the air in self-defense again and again, even if the latter is surely far, far, far more stressful for the owl involved. If I myself were present at the events videotaped at Boundary Bay and photographed at the Chicago Lakefront, I’d certainly have been indignant at the former and exhilarated by the latter. My question is, why? And what, if anything, should we do about it?

I would say up front that I find the oft-expressed view that one is, “natural,” and the other is not to be deeply unsatisfying.

But I am also more than willing to concede that our capacity for ethics places somewhat different obligations on us than on our fellow species. We won’t get far with an ABA Code of Ethics for Peregrines. And yet I think that document is one of the ABA’s most important contributions for birders.

And what human can say that Peregrines don’t have Peregrine ethics? Ethics which may demand that they test the mettle of a potential rival and/or prey item?

And an ethical sense isn’t the only difference, of course. If Homo sapiens had just been removed from the Endangered Species list, having been put in jeopardy by the activities of several billion Falco peregrinus, well, that would be a different world from the one in which we all live.

So I’m offering it up for discussion. Take a look at Greg’s post and at Ted’s post. Watch the YouTube video. Why does one owl incident make us shake with joyous excitement and another with rage?

And when you do encounter situations that call for action, such as birders or others behaving badly, I certainly encourage you to address them, confidently and, one hopes, effectively. But I encourage you to do so with a certain measure of understanding, even empathy. This planet is a hard place for all the life that inhabits it. That would be so with or without human beings. We’ve all been jerks at times and we’ve all flown with the angels at others. Let’s help each other spend more and more time aloft.

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Jeff Gordon

Jeff Gordon

Jeff Gordon is the president of the American Birding Association. There's very little about birds, birding, and birders that he doesn't find fascinating, though he's especially interested in birding culture and the many ways we all communicate our passion for birds, including this Blog.
  • Steve H.

    I don’t judge animals the way I judge humans. Animals are behaving the way they do, based on millions of years of evolution (as do humans of course). But, they (presumably) have no ‘ethics’; no rules imposed on themselves for the good of say falcon society. We, on the other hand, do. ABA and the nature photographers set forth guidelines to assure that the species and opportunities exist for future generations.

    When we see birders or photographers behaving badly we get irritated because they aren’t playing by the rules ABA and other groups have laid out. No one likes cheaters. Falcons or coyotes or feral cats for that matter can’t cheat. They have no rules or ethics. They are just trying to survive, which is not equal to trying to get a great picture to impress others or ourselves.

    Good topic. We need to think about these sorts of things from time to time. I was once called to task for (jokingly) suggesting birders whack photographers with their tripods if they ignore our complaints and continue to harass rare birds in our presence (in response to Georgia’s first Ivory Gull sighting a couple years back). It made me think about the subject more and gain a bit more understanding and tone down my hyperbole or attempted humor when dealing with this subject.

    (BTW and for the record, feral cats have no place in the outside environment…but I recognize that as a value judgement because I place more value on the survival of native species than the existence of individual domestic animals gone feral).

  • I’m ever guilty of the argument that anthropogenic stress to animals and ecosystems is “unnatural” and thus malignant. That romantic and deeply flawed notion fails, as Jeff mentions, the tests of logic and semantics. Humans are made of the same stuff as owls and subject to the same laws of physics and chemistry. We couldn’t be more natural.

    But we are undoubtedly different. For better or worse, we’ve evolved an absurdly large cerebrum. Combined with opposable thumbs, that brain allows us to alter every ecosystem on Earth. We could destroy the biosphere at will. Some would suggest we already are. Although our dominance of bacteria and viruses can be tenuous, we pretty much hold the life of all other organisms in our hands. With great power comes great responsibility.

    Because we can make moral and ethical judgments, we must. We must learn to step back, to lessen our impact. Stress to a snowy owl for the sake of the fleeting pleasure of a sellable photograph must not be considered akin to the stress imposed by a peregrine falcon defending a breeding and hunting territory. If the two actions are considered one and the same, then I will be the first to declare our oversized brains a mistake of evolution that the Earth will pay for dearly.

  • Agreed with Kirby and Steve – because we have already done inestimable damage, we have an obligation to refrain from adding insult to injury. We know that flushed Snowy Owls, some of them already on the brink of starvation, become targets for all sorts of birds – not just raptors, but gulls and corvids as well. It is often alleged that birders are some of the only people who will stand up for the needs of birds and other wildlife; there is some evidence to support the notion that birders are conservationists, but every time a birder hounds a stressed bird (a very frequent scenario during winter owl invasions), the claim takes a big hit.

  • Agreed, Ned, it’s a PR disaster. So how do we go about making the best of, indeed improving, the situation?

    It shouldn’t fall to birders to atone for the sins of all humanity. But, privileged as we are to a certain view of how the world works, I think we do have an obligation to strive to make things better.

    So how do we do it? I don’t pretend to have all the answers, which is a big motivation for opening here what many have rightly called a can of worms.

    But I’m pretty sure the answer is not demonizing each other and forming a circular firing squad, which seems, some of the time, to be our first impulse.

    And of course, we’ll never eliminate all bad behavior or anthropogenic threats to birds.

    You’re a keen student of human and avian behavior, Ned. Have you got any thoughts for how we make progress here?

  • Thanks, Steve, for your thoughtful comments.

  • Great stuff, Kirby.

    I especially like the start of your concluding paragraph, right up to the very last sentence, where I take a little issue. I don’t think anybody would consider the falcon and the photographer’s actions, “…one and the same…”

    My goal is for us to take a look at how we *respond* to the behaviors. We’re not going to make much headway changing the falcon’s, and that’s probably for the best. But how do we really make progress changing human behavior?

    That’s what I’d like to challenge all of us to use our overabundance of cerebral tissue.

    Thanks for contributing!

  • I would add that it’s just one Peregrine, sharing hunting space, competing, trying to survive. Interspecific behaviors between niche competitors is ecologically predictable.

    The circus that birders/photographers create around the rare and unusual is ecologically unjustifiable. We are comparing apples to HumVees when we compare these genuinely ecosystemic altercations to human disturbances.

    None of us NEEDS an up close, full-frame shot of a Snowy Owl to survive. We’re competing for bragging rights. Most of the shutterbugs chasing these owls will be taking shots which are, in the artistic sense, derivative and unexceptional. As beautiful as these owl are, they mostly just sit there and doze. The most of the picture that get taken will be stored away on the camera operators hard-drive where they will never be seen, again.

    I can do derivative and unexceptional just as well from 200m away.

    My good friend Neal Maine says anybody can take a picture, genuine photographs are rare. We live in a brave new world of cameras in every phone. Everybody is taking pictures. Genuine photographs require more than a really big lens. They require a certain amount of sensitivity for the subject.

    I don’t meet many photographers. I know plenty of people with big lenses on their cameras.

  • In reply to Jeff, but also in response to all of the other excellent comments:

    Mike is absolutely correct: 15-20 years ago, photographers were in the minority in the birding community, and now non-photographers are in the minority. It’s a dizzying and sudden change. Also dizzying, the rate at which information is shared has gone from a drip to a flood. During the same period, the ways in which beginners learn about birds – all aspects of birds, not just identification – have changed, from a bird-club-based tutelage or mentoring relationship to, in some cases, downloading a couple of apps for a smart phone. Dizzying. Arguably, too, there is a rather rapid evolution away from negative stereotypes about birding, which has led to the embrace of people who might have otherwise avoided it because of stigma. So even if the numbers of members in bird clubs tend to be trending downward, participation in web-based projects like eBird has spiked remarkably, especially in the past two years.

    So the answers about how to address the problems of unethical behavior probably also need to evolve. In the past, a person could go up to another person in the field and assume that they had at least heard of the Birding Code of Ethics. Nowadays, it is very UNlikely that a person disturbing an owl has heard of the Code. So the groundwork on which a conversation about “pushing” bird might begin simply cannot be assumed any longer, even despite the fact that many state/federal agencies, NGOs, and bird clubs have distributed the Code or borrowed heavily from it over the decades.

    If I were to approach an unknown birder/photographer flushing a Snowy Owl (one just turned up here this week, by the way), I am not exactly certain how the conversation would take shape. But I do agree with Jeff that we need to intervene in ways that are likely to create good outcomes for all involved, especially the birds. Nowadays, public shaming (or shaming via internet) is not likely to be effective, though in the past (when birders pretty much knew each other regionally), shaming was not uncommon and probably had some efficacy, as it true in tightly knit groups of people. Even loners don’t want to be pariahs.

    Now that the “birding community” has become so very large, and essentially a “virtual” concept, with fewer actual human ties for most people who bird, I think what we first need to attend to is forging our ties more tightly (and no, not so that we can return to shaming bad behavior). I ask everyone I see out birding if they are members of ABA. Most nowadays say they are not or have not heard of ABA, which would have been unthinkable in the 1980s or even most of the 1990s. ABA is the only organization in the world that ties together birders on a continental level, producing publications in both birding and ornithology, supporting youth and conservation initiatives, and promulgating a code of ethics for birders. The only one in the world. So in answer to Jeff’s final question, I think that we need for the millions of new birders to realize that there *is* a community out there – and that how we bird does matter (for birds and habitats, and for our shared ability to have access to areas that are not public or have limited access). In the past, in order to be part of that ongoing conversation, and for other reasons, birders joined the ABA as well as their local bird clubs. With so much material available on the interwebs now, fewer and fewer people “join” *anything* now. And the consequences are not good: it takes more than common sense, I think, to know about respectful distances from wild birds. One can surf around online for weeks and never alight on a site that addresses, in comprehensive fashion, what’s at stake for birds and birding in such situations. I think people should become “joiners” again, so that they feel part of something larger than themselves, something greater than “hey I want a sweet pic of that hot bird”. As Mike says, needs and wants are two different things. Me personally? I think birders should join ABA, sure, to take part in the conversation, but I encourage the many birders I meet who are on fixed incomes, or underemployed, or just don’t have the funds to check the ABA website and blog, at least, to see what’s going on. Be a part of at least part of the conversation. And save up and join when you can! But I also believe that birders in the United States and Canada (and elsewhere) should push very hard to be “certified” annually, and pay a fee, as hunters do the the duck stamp, for instance, so that our voices are also heard by lawmakers. Past efforts to make that happened have not succeeded, but I think that would be a way in which the interests of both birds and birders (and photographers, potentially) could be advanced. What doesn’t work, clearly, in the current modern situation, in which people so often behave in negative, unilateral ways that advance neither. As a real community, we are becoming too small at our core, and that is understandable in light of the enormous technological advances in the past 20 years. In order to have anything like a commonly understood set of ethics that guide behavior, we first have to rebuild and build a real community of birders

  • p.s. sorry for all the typos – I hit “send” too quickly!

  • Very interesting post and discussion. I have another perspective, that our outrage over the human harassing the owl, and our fascination with the Peregrine, is not a double standard at all. I think these reactions have very little to do with concern for the owl, and more with a fundamental (and self-centered) sense of fairness.
    If I’m playing by the rules, watching the owl from a distance and sharing the experience with everyone, I get upset if someone comes along and greedily “takes” more than their share by getting too close and flushing the bird. It’s like having a cake cut into ten pieces for ten people – and then one person takes five pieces! That’s what really makes us mad.
    We don’t get mad at the Peregrine because we know it’s operating on a completely different set of rules and doesn’t have to “share” anything with us.

  • Andrew Haffenden

    On an somewhat unrelated topic, Ned might want to check out Birds Australia. It is not only continent-wide, it has branches in each state, and in many regions, produces both a popular birding magazine and The Emu, one of the world’s top ornithological publications for over 100 years, has been in the forefront of bird conservation in Australia for about the same length of time (and the world – it was the first bird organization to get involved in international conservation efforts to stop the egret plume industry), spends $1 million annually on bird research, has outreach to all members of the community from children to city dwellers to farmers, has been doing citizen science since the first Australia-wide Atlas in 1977 and developed and put into operation a program similar to Ebird back in 1998 which currently has produced over 6 million records in a country of just 21 million. It produced HANZAB, has regular field outings and conferences, supports students for both PhD and post grad work, operates Bird Observatories with tours and classes open to the general public, and has several important conservation reserves. It does all this, and more, with a membership of just under 8000. Please don’t fall into the insular, and usually wrong, American position of “only in America.”

  • Bird Nut

    There are so many more humans than Peregrines.

  • I agree with several above that comparing human and Peregrine behavior is comparing apples and oranges, and there’s no real conundrum involved. As far as Jeff’s question of how to improve human behavior, my impression is that ABA already does what can be done (education/outreach) and you just can’t expect to ever influence 100% of people.

    It would be interesting, BTW, to know if this fellow was a member of ABA, or what birding or photography affiliations he has (those are the folks he needs to hear from… and, hopefully, has!).
    Finally, most of us have probably stepped across some ethical line in our birding histories at one point or another (and understand the temptations) — this fellow’s actions just seem especially thoughtless and egregious (…and insipid, given so many witnesses!!!)

  • Hear, hear!

    Great stuff, Ned, typos and all. You should consider taking parts of this and building it into a self-contained post. It’s as good a case for the value (and potential) of the ABA as I’ve heard anyone make.

  • David,

    I think you’re really on to something with the idea that our sense of fair play is being violated.

    Thus, we can celebrate the Peregrine’s (major) harassment of an owl with a clear conscience. No rules were broken. While the human’s, even though far less severe in most ways, we see as reprehensible.

    Thanks for your perspective.

  • I didn’t mean to imply anyone here thought the falcon’s and photographer’s were the same. That was more a preemptive strike against the argument ad absurdum that all actions of natural beings are by definition natural actions and thus benign and appropriate. I fought that battle with an entomologist once and it taxed the mind more than I care to relive!

    As for changing the falcon’s behavior forever – we almost managed to do that once. It was called DDT. Probably not how we should approach the human problem…

  • Yes, indeed, there are, a point I made a couple of times in the post.

    But here’s another question: how much more likely is a given Snowy Owl to experience human vs. Peregrine (or other non-numan) harassment. As much of the range of Snowy Owl is extremely sparsely populated by humans, I’d speculate that (and it’s only speculation, admittedly) that H. sapiens is well down the list of species that make Snowy Owl life more difficult.

    Again, this certainly doesn’t absolve us of the need to reduce our impacts. I’m just hoping to frame the questions, and the debate, more helpfully.

    Thanks for commenting!

  • Hi cyberthrush,

    Thanks for your comments. I agree that it’s apples and oranges. But I would say the *from the perspective of the owl* it would be much less of a stress to flushed by a photographer than to be attacked by a Peregrine.

    Yet, from our perspective, we’re absolutely cheering the falcon’s assault and at the same time howling for the blood of the photographer, based on a much more minor disturbance. Doesn’t that strike you as at least a bit of a contradiction, perhaps revealing of some important assumptions and values?

    Even if it does not, I’m really pleased with the discussion so far. Thanks again.

  • Bird Nut

    Good point, Jeff… I completely agree with you. I suppose my feelings are shaped by other birds (and plants) as well, and not just the snowies.

    Since the majority of the snowies hang out in sparsely populated areas, then I suppose its not an overarching big deal in the big picture if they’re being flushed in our populated areas… unless we want to see them in our populated areas 😉

    When I was a kid growing up, I use to catch frogs in the creek on my dad’s ranch as if their population was unlimited. Now, sadly, I would never do that.

    IF the human influence and population were less, then I’d say flush birds all day long and have fun doing it! 🙂


  • Paul Jones

    I think the only real consideration is of Snowy/human interaction. We have no control over Peregrines.

    With respect to our interaction with the owls, one thing to consider is the broader impact of photographers/birders on the population, not individuals. Here we can speculate that the recent intense interest in the birds is of net benefit. In my neck of the woods (mid-eastern Canada) many of the invaders would have been shot 25-30 years ago. Now the farmers in the areas where they have shown up this winter take pride in their guests – a direct result of city folk driving out and showing interest in the “White Owls”. Birders and photographers need to be very cautious and avoid disturbing the owls. But if the occasional disturbance is the price for greater public interest in the owls then maybe that is a price worth paying.

  • There seems to me to be a fundamental difference, from a Snowy Owls’ viewpoint, between a Peregrine strafing him and a human approaching. There are plenty of peregrines and gyrs up on the tundra, and they often divebomb snowies, and so most Snowy Owls have had plenty of interactions with them before they move south. I’ve been lucky enough, here in Duluth, to witness many dramatic interactions between the two species, but I’ve yet to see a Snowy Owl take off and leave any spot due to a peregrine. That makes sense–Snowy Owls are far slower and less maneuverable in flight than are Peregrines, and can’t keep their talons directed at the peregrine from the air. When a peregrine approaches, the Snowy Owls I’ve observed have usually seemed to try to hunker down first, but if the peregrine gets too close, they put on a more aggressive pose and often flip so they’re almost or actually on their back to expose their talons (just as formidable a weapon as a peregrine’s) to let the falcon know they are perfectly willing to fight back.

    When I was researching my owl book, I talked a lot to David Evans, who has been banding and tracking Duluth’s Snowy Owls since the 70s. He told me that the two species often get into these battles in the Duluth harbor area, but he’s yet to see any evidence that a peregrine has ever injured a snowy. He suspects it’s more a form of play on the falcon’s part than any kind of effort at predation.

    The tundra where Snowy Owls breed is singularly devoid of humans, so they don’t have the same understanding of how to react that they do when a peregrine approaches, which is why they actually fly away from people rather than acting fierce and extending talons toward us. Even when we’re at a distance, when the owl appears to be “snoozing,” notice that its eyes are open a slit. Snowy Owls have perfectly clear vision with their eyes mostly closed–holding the lids mostly down cuts down on most of the sunlight and also blocks view of their yellow eyes, which many birds, from crows and ravens to falcons, recognize as a signal to start mobbing. I suspect it would be impossible for a human to observe any Snowy Owl undetected.

    I think David Sibley is right that at one level, our outrage at photographers and birders approaching too closely is based on self-interest–we don’t want a handful of people grabbing a quality experience by destroying the chances of others to have any experience at all with the owl, by scaring it away. But I suspect that many of us are also more concerned about the welfare of the owls than one another’s life lists and photo quality.

    I’m more focused on, and knowledgeable about, what birds need than what people do after spending a couple of decades as a licensed wildlife rehabber. While I was rehabbing, I was called to the Superior animal shelter to pick up a Snowy Owl that had been hit by a car–she died in my arms before we reached my car. The main cause of mortality for Great Gray Owls during the great invasion of 2004-05 was not starvation–it was collisions with cars–and I held dozens of injured great grays that horrible winter. Most of them had been picked up by people after the owl had already been injured, and so I have no back story about them, but I know personally of two cases where birders approached, for better looks in one case and for better photos in the other, flushing an owl away at the tragic moment when an approaching car hit it. I also know of three cases where birders themselves hit owls (two great grays and one northern hawk) en route to watching them in the bog. By the end of that winter I was weary from taking heart-rending calls from people feeling so sorrowful and guilty after causing death or injury to these birds–and in most cases, the people weren’t guilty of ethical violations so much as simply not realizing how low owls fly, how directional their hearing is, and how much difficulty they have evading a car at the last moment.

    I think to truly negotiate the complexities of the risks of birder and photographer behavior are, we have to consider several factors. First, how wild is the area, and its surroundings? If you get too close to an owl in a huge wild area and it flies off, there may be plenty of good habitat for it to move on to. If you’re far away from a road, or if you keep aware of any approaching vehicles, accidentally scaring an owl off isn’t that bad of a thing, especially compared to scaring it off right when a car is coming or in an area where it will need to search to find another bit of habitat. In the Duluth area, I consider it far more egregious to approach an owl in the harbor area, where cars, wires, machinery, and windows in all directions pose huge risks, than in the bog, as long as the birder keeps ever in mind whether any cars are in the area.

    In an area like New York City or Chicago, there’s just a narrow sliver of reasonably good habitat sandwiched by the ocean or a huge lake on one side, and on the other a huge urban jungle crisscrossed by automobiles, wires, glass, and other dangers. There has to be some sort of continuum of danger to the bird, and thus of the egregiousness of any ethical violations of birders approaching it, based on how safe is the likely outcome for the bird if it does end up flushing.

    I saw two New York City Snowy Owls a week ago, on Breezy Point Tip, with my husband, daughter, and her boyfriend. There were two photographers standing at a distance I thought was simply too close to the adult male owl. I was standing with several other birders at the edge of the dunes (and I was further forward than I should have been, standing a good foot or two beyond where the dunes vegetation started because I’m short and the edge of the vegetation was below the crest of a small hill. I was careful to stay on sand and not trample plants, but still, that was crossing the border between truly ethical and unethical. But the photographers I objected to were well within the fragile dunes, a critical habitat for nesting terns and plovers, in an area well posted. Obviously terns and plovers were not present, but fragile dunes vegetation harmed in winter doesn’t recover in time for breeding season. So these people were violating the law as well as coming too close to the adult male they were stalking.

    I was watching the bird through my camera lens and could see that although its eyes were mostly closed, it was actively watching the birders along the edge of the dunes and then swiveling its head to watch the photographers. This is another issue regarding scaring a bird. When more than one person is watching a bird, it is far better for everyone to be consolidated into a single group. Then the bird can easily detect when someone does something threatening. Swiveling back and forth between potential dangers raises the bird’s stress level and makes it more likely to flush.

    My understanding is that this adult male had actually been in a different area the day before, and ended up being flushed off by photographers. When it reached this beach, there was already another Snowy Owl present, and the two had a territorial squabble. Now both were in the area, which of course reduces the hunting possibilities for both and raises possibilities for more territorial squabbles. My photographs of these birds show the Coney Island ferris wheel and the Brooklyn and Manhattan skylines in the background, which made me all the more focused on how important it was to limit the possibility of us scaring either bird off.

    Anyway, I love Jeff’s continued commitment to opening friendly but forthright dialog among various factions of birders. People who have a background in rehabbing and banding, who have actually handled wild owls and studied their behavior, should have a voice in this discussion. So should people who have photographed wild birds professionally and ethically– the kind who don’t just grab opportunities at staked out birds but who have actually followed individual birds over a winter or a breeding season, and have learned first hand which photographer behaviors are most likely to cause the bird to flush.

    As Jeff says, watching these spectacular birds is exciting and wonderful, and as a photographer myself, I know how deeply gratifying it is to get a great photo. It’s not wise for the sport of birding or even for bird conservation to turn into a bunch of scolds, but it’s also not right to subject birds to stress, especially when it can lead them into dangerous situations. What’s the right answer? Some people on both sides of any issue have absolute certainty about their stance. I envy them.

  • And by all accounts this irruption is one of prey abundance rather than scarcity in the north. You could say all the snowies down here are “expendable” from a population standpoint. Flushed by a bearded dude or harassed by a falcon – either way most of these birds are doomed and would be even if humans didn’t exist. They’re disposable ambassadors for birding and conservation, if you choose to look at it that way. And I don’t say that to be flippant or to suggest that line of thought is flawed at all. That’s just the cold science of it – ecology sans ethics, morals, or empathy.

  • Can I inject an unpopular viewpoint for consideration?

    Most birders at this location and staying on the designated trails may not have flushed a large charismatic bird. However, how many dozens of marsh wrens, song sparrows, juncos, finches, and other smaller birds flushed from the trail? Are they not equally worthy of consideration? I submit that the person-behaving-badly in the You-tube video flushed and disturbed approximately the same number of birds as someone “obeying the rules.” I wonder if the anger we feel at the lack of discretion shown by the person in the video is not so much that he hurt the owl, but that he offended the sensibilities of a certain small subsection of the human population–birders. And are we angry because we see ourselves in that video?

    Every time I go birding I disturb and flush birds. So do you. On purpose. But so do the hikers, dog walkers, joggers, and bikers that use the same public trails that I do when I go birding (almost always with my camera). They don’t even know they’re doing it! Are they less reprehensible than I am when they flush birds because they aren’t even aware that they exist?

    Even if I stay home and never go bird watching again I am disturbing and even killing birds. I hit them with my car. They smack into my invisible windows. They fly into the power lines running up to my home. I chop down their forest homes to build the frame for my house. I dam up the river to provide electricity so I can write this email to all you nice people who are just as innocent as I am.

  • I think it’s way easier to say it’s “a price worth paying” when someone else, such as an owl, happens to be the one paying it.

    I can see some legitimacy to these points, but I also know, based on long term research by David Evans in Duluth, that some Snowy Owls that fly south in the winter return year after year, so these south-flying birds aren’t necessarily doomed. And I also know, based on almost 40 years of teaching the general public about birds and birding, that more non-scientific people (which includes the vast majority of Americans, like it or not) are distressed to hear someone say that an individual bird is expendable than to be asked to follow guidelines to make a safer if more distant observation.

  • I agree with a lot of what’s been said above, particularly about fairness (my dissertation was about comparing different conceptions of fairness), but I want to propose another idea that I haven’t seen mentioned, which has to do with the relative senselessness of the acts. The Peregrine made a deliberate act toward the Snowy that was fundamentally about survival, whereas the photographers’ incursion was fundamentally trivial when weighed against the bird’s wellbeing.

    The reasons that everybody’s given already seem more disposed to excuse (non-human) animal behavior that’s deemed disruptive, but I can get just as upset with animals as I do with inconsiderate people, if I judge an act to be senseless. If a bird’s flushed by a dog bark, or if an oblivious squirrel or raccoon wanders too close, then yes, I find myself getting peeved. But if I saw that same raccoon harassing the same bird in defense of it’s territory, I’d be much more forgiving.

  • I spent three years of my life researching and writing a book about all the things we do that can harm birds, and how to minimize those harms in our daily lives. I personally never leave paths, and never walk in open fields, during nesting season when there is even a tiny possibility of accidentally trampling a ground nest.

    If you watch carefully, you’ll see that when you flush birds in the woods or fields, they don’t fly far–they tend to drop or move into a dense shrub where they can watch you pass by and go on. I’ve walked past singing Song Sparrows, Marsh Wrens, juncos, and finches without flushing them or even changing the rhythm of their bursts of song. These species would not have survived this long if they hadn’t adapted to human activity. So even though I tend to be the kind of person who looks on the dark side when it comes to human interactions with birds, I think it’s exaggerated to imagine we’re having the same effect on common songbirds that normally live near humans as we are on Snowy Owls.

  • Very well put. I’m always basically appalled that every wildlife show seems to takes great delight in the bringdown and kill – with the obligatory closeup of the the jaws clamped on the still-alive, wide-eyed Tommy’s neck. Or some variation thereof. Sure animals have to live, and for some that means others have to die. But what are we revealing about ourselves when we take such pleasure, or at least excitement,in seeing it? Then, of course, the #2 essential obligatory sequence is the screw shot….

  • Bird Nut

    Thank you Laura for injecting such caring & intelligent comments!

    I think most birders are aware that far more birds are flushed when you leave the paths than when you stay on the paths. But many are not aware of the consequences, to both birds and plants. Of course its all a matter of degree and the circumstances, and some habitats and some birds are more sensitive than others, and there’s no black & white answer here, but I think awareness is half the battle to making good choices.

    Of course I’ll walk across a grassland, and I’d let a 2 year old chase a flock of gulls at a picnic at the park. But I wouldn’t let my kid wreak havoc on some restored dune at the beach.

  • From Laura Erickson above: “He suspects it’s more a form of play on the falcon’s part than any kind of effort at predation” So both photographer and falcon are playing by harassing the owl. The falcon has no intention of eating the owl. Watch a merlin when there is any other raptor around, they just can’t stand them, usually attack a few times and move on. I watched one do that to both a red-tailed hawk and a kestrel one straight after the other just a few weeks ago. It doesn’t seem to be a competition thing. But I’ve also watched Australia Little Falcons harass starlings with clearly no intent of getting a meal, just fly down into the roosting flock, fly off, wait for them to settle again, repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Maybe falcons are the domestic cats of the bird world, just want to have fun. My point: neither the falcon nor the photographer had a “moral” purpose for its actions. Both are equally at fault, or not at fault. Unless the photographer was a professional, when he indeed was acquiring a meal.

  • It disturbs me that any person could expect wild animals (or even domestic ones) to operate under ethical or moral codes developed by humans–that’s anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism both at their worst. The responsibility for the destruction of domestic cats isn’t the cats’–it’s the fault of those humans who release them into the wild. And remember as far as Peregrine Falcons “playing” that they are engaging with an equally dangerous wild predator. Snowy Owl talons, as I’ve experienced first hand, are amazingly huge and powerful.

  • Also, the role of “play” in animals isn’t necessarily as frivolous as the role of many kinds of play is for humans. Snowy Owls virtually never feed on Peregrine Falcons, or vice versa, but peregrines, and especially their young, are at least sometimes prey to Great Horned Owls. By “playing” with a Snowy Owl, which has the same yellow eyes and “owlishness” as a Great Horned Owl, the peregrine may be honing its defensive skills or learning to become more alert to the presence of owls.

  • I do not think the point is that none of these birds will survive and return to the same general locations in the future, but that an irruption caused by rapid population growth which was itself caused by very abundant prey availability is typically not sustainable, and many birds simply do not survive. That goes for any animal in any population dynamic—the crash after food stores are depleted may be “sad” but the survivors will have shown their fitness in having survived, and then life goes on, and the species as a whole may have benefited very well from the experience. This point should help alleviate any distress to anyone in the general public, and make them a little less “non-scientific.”

  • Why do you think play in humans is frivolous? As a more complicated animal – which surely we are (not better, just more complicated), we would be expected to have more complicated play. Our complex social life – extended family, large social setting, aggression, anomalies cf other animals such as the need for paid employment, and so on, means our survival learning is more extensive than other animals. This learning includes play. We have ongoing social needs, the medically proven need to keep our brains active to maintain good health and long life, the need to compete for mates and social staus by means for most of us other than by flashy body or physical dominance, and other needs. All makes our many activities, from playing chasey at school to having the best photo among our peer group anything but frivolous. It would seem best that if we judge other animals on basic life needs, then we judge ourselves on the same, but within the correct context. Our context is more complex than other animals, although some of the great apes come relatively close, so we should expect our actions and activities to be more complex. While survival to modern living humans is still about eat, mate, raise young, sleep, survive, the achievement of this is far more complicated than for a falcon.

    I agree that we shouldn’t expect animals to be judged on any sort of human morality, hence my “not at fault” ending. But we also shouldn’t do the opposite, only judge human actions as if they have no animal basis, but only on a recent veneer of an often locally socially imposed ethical or moral code – this is equally anthropocentric.

    Unless the falcon comes with striking range of the owl’s talons, he is in no danger. Although I can review the photos right now, I don’t recall seeing that. Mountain climbing’s not safe either.

  • The role of play is very important in all higher animals, including humans. But play plays a more pivotal role in survival of wild animals than it does for the humans of today–indeed, a lot of young people have squandered away opportunities for careers by being too consumed with video or role-playing games. And a lot of desert, dunes, and other habitat has been destroyed by people on off-road vehicles and other such play.

    Every moral and ethical code has its underpinnings in that “recent veneer” imposed by human societies. Thus, any discussion imposing moral or ethical values on animals makes no sense to me.

  • Perhaps “play” is not the best word, for how we view “play” among our own species. Crows do not mob hawks for play, they do it in order to drive away a potential predator or nest invader. Merlins do not play with harriers or red-tailed hawks, they are driving away individuals who are in direct competition for many of the same prey items. For any of these birds, attacking the larger raptor could be just as dangerous to themselves as to the other bird. There is a need, however, and survivability comes into play—not trying to drive the other predator away could diminish the survivability for themselves and/or their offspring.

    That is part of the reason that birders and biologists are all highly enthusiastic in their abject wonder at viewing the peregrine swooping in on the snowy owl. It is another part of the spectacle of nature that we all are trying to see when we go out there.

    That is a very different experience than the photographer who flushed the owl in the video. Yet comparing the harassment of a peregrine to the actions of the photographer are not apples and oranges, but more like Mike Patterson said above: “Apples to Humvees.” They do not compare very well at all, not from the viewpoint of the owl, nor to the sensibilities of birders and naturalists.

    I doubt that anyone who has ever tried taking a picture of a bird has not flushed many birds while doing so. Megapixels can only get you so far, and even nice large telephoto lenses can only do so much. It is often very tempting to go after a really good closeup picture. So I think that some of the calls for “jail time” and other punishments are a bit exaggerated. They also may hurt the hobby, making newcomers who might not have the experience and education yet to make such judgements think that we are snobs who do not welcome them to the hobby. Many described above having done things in their own past that would not be very welcomed today. All we really need to do is go to that guy and say “Hey, this is not a good thing to do,” and then explain to him why. Him and anyone else we see doing it, to snowy owls or any wildlife.

  • I agree with much of what you said, and deal with people much as you recommend. The trick is that many of the people being photographed and videotaped getting too close to Snowy Owls already know that this behavior is frowned upon by many birders, and know that their approaching is somewhere on the continuum of being a minor irritant to a major stressor for the bird.

    And again, I think it’s exaggerating things to think that everyone flushes “many” birds while taking a picture of a bird. I simply cannot be the only birder/photographer who is very conscious of the birds in my surroundings as I focus on one particular one. As I said, I’ve often walked or stood in place while several birds continued to sing on the same perch they were on when I arrived. That is something I aspire to do–to enter and leave an area while minimizing my impact on the activities on all the local birds. Obviously I’ve flushed birds, but part of ethical and moral codes does involve sincere effort and mindfulness.

  • This argument is really compelling to me. An owl flushes in response to lots of stimuli, human and non-human. It is part of what it does.

    But an over-flushed owl will just leave, just as taped out birds will stop responding or over-pished birds will ignore your attempts to attract them. On the other hand, in places where people are more inclined to play by the rules, the birds quickly adapt to the fact that humans are no threat and provide remarkable opportunities for both photographers and observers. Take, for instance, the waders along the wildlife drive at Ding Darling or the feeder birds at Bentsen State Park. Birds are capable of adapting to human presence if we let them. The tough part is, as discussed here, getting everybody on the same page.

  • Bird Nut

    I don’t think this guy was a jerk, I think he was just unaware, as many of us are in my opinion, and I’ll include myself in that. We can’t be aware of everything, but we should at least try to be open to seeing how we affect the world. I think its a cop-out to say that we’re just jealous that this guy took too many slices of pie. Look at Laura Erickson’s comments. I also think its a cop-out to tell ourselves that we aren’t affecting bird life by approaching it, and that its only a little bit of energy to fly away. The fact is that some birds will not nest (or roost at night) in areas where humans are approaching or too present… a signal of predation to many birds.. even if we aren’t a predator the bird may think we are.

    I live in the west, so maybe its different in the east, but have you ever noticed a group of trees in the distance, way off the trail that no one ever passes by? Well, if you go out of your way to walk over to those trees I’ll bet you’ll flush an owl or some other bird that likes to roost in those trees because of the fact that it is off the trail, away from people. No harm done, and I don’t begrudge anyone to do that, unless it were some rare bird in limited habitat. But I do think we should be aware of the cause and effect.

    Is the ABA no longer a conservation organization. Is it now a “let’s see how many birds we can list & photograph organization”. For hecks sake, just because we wow at a Peregrine swooping down on an owl, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look down on human harrassment of snowy owls in populated areas. I know the owls aren’t nesting, but why not let them hang out in peace… I’m not addressing the Peregrines, I’m addressing birders for God’s sake.

  • In the non-human animal world, some animals are better at choosing their play – learning – than others. It may be that those poorer choosers die early. In humans, with more support, early death is not so likely. I’m sure there are the equivalent of video gamers in animal societies, and may they are weeded out early. But in humans, they aren’t, some just have low-level jobs, scraping by, as there is a safety net. On the other hand, many 14 yo video gamers went on to be very successful internet entrepreneurs. I speak from personal knowledge. Just as many “bookworms” and kids who weren’t interested much in school but were always looking out the window at birds or playing with cameras went on to very successful careers. This is even more so for the kids who were certainly anomalies in Amazonia, Africa, or other third world areas who were interested in birds and wildlife rather than the toils of farming – the “good” career – who are now the ones bringing the much needed cash to their communities. I’m still hearing, or rather reading, a refusal to treat humans as animals, but placing them apart in a special place, with special conditions, apparently not subject to the laws of nature any more. Different. Above the rest. Sounds surprisingly like what we hear from our religious friends. To me, either we follow the same laws, no matter how complex they and our response to them have become, and should be judged so. Or we were somehow created apart, or have evolved in a special way. The latter I don’t believe. I don’t believe that animals should follow our laws, or the refinements called ethics and morals, or be judged on them, but we follow theirs, the universal law, and be judged on that. That doesn’t mean we are all the same – I doubt butterflies have a sense of betrayal, or loyalty, but along the way friendship has developed in species other than ourselves, and I cannot doubt that once friendship has been established, betrayal can also be felt. Play can be basic training, but it can also be, play. My adult falcons harassing starlings can happily kill one and eat it at any time, there’s no need to hone their skills. Doing so would mean taking one out, but not eating it. They are jut flying into the roost. Even juvniles can do that, and do, when unsuccessfully hunting. They don’t pick one bird and go for it, but swing around wildly, at the nearest one. The red-tailed hawk doesn’t harass the kestrel, or the harrier.

    Play, and other advanced behaviors, are continua and as we study, reject human uniqueness and understand more, we see these continua stretching further back, and gray or blank areas becoming more defined. We should be wary, at this point, of drawing lines.

    please excuse typos as it’s late, I’m tired (I’ve been sick) and need to got to bed.

  • I’ve walked down many paths while birding, for many years. I couldn’t tell you how many white-throated, song, chipping, savannah and fox sparrows have flown off the edge of the path as I’ve walked past. I’ve seen ducks fly off as I exited the car on a wildlife trail road through a wetland, or even drive past, shorebirds rush and fly off on a beach birding walk, herons from from reeds, originally hidden from my site on Audubon trails, and so on. I must flush at least a 1000 normal, everyday birds every year, at least. Snipe – every birder flushes snipe, from a good distance. Every time a birder uses a tape he or she is flushing a bird, or rather birds. I wonder how many birds were flushed at Merritt Island a couple of weeks ago following ABA ethics guidelines? Just to arrive at that photographic spot so often means flushing many birds along the way, even if not at the site itself.

  • Mark

    Shame is a violation of cultural or social values while guilt feelings arise from violations of one’s internal values.
    While you were all infighting inside your non-self sustaining group, life flowed on outside and people just started watching birds without all your rules. Lots of people. Since there is no shared social goals no tight knit group, shame is not going to work. How many Thayer’s Gulls danced on that pin head?
    Birding was like a shame-bound family system, where shame originates in “the violation and diminution of personhood.” The parent violates and diminishes the personhood of the child, and this is passed on from generation to generation. These people are saying I am no longer a member of your group with its own social values and you sure, the hell are not my parent. Their answer to the abuse is what children always answer that is it stops here with me. I break the chain of abuse. Fixing the ABA will not help this, it is too late for that. The most tweeted tweet Sunday night was Who is Paul McCartney The answer for the ABA is blowing in the wind. These Snowy Owls are dead birds flying. But at least some part of their soul will be saved in the CMOS sensor chip of all those ‘jerk’ photographers.

  • The fact is…There are too many so-called birders and too many people with cameras. Back in the 1980’s and 90’s. Those if us that were members of groups like the ABA, were pushing for more birders to join the the different groups, like ABA and WFO. We encouraged people to get into bird-watching and we were successful. To successful!
    As for the photographers, blame technology for bringing photography into the digital age. If we were still doing film, we wouldn’t have this onslaught of people and their cameras.
    As for ethics and morals, really who is it for anyone to decide what is right and what is wrong when it comes to human interaction with nature. I believe that my own morals and ethics are stronger than the ABA’s own code. Over the years and still to this day, I watch ABA members, some well known, break no tresspassing laws, and pursuing birds, and then turn around and try to tell others how to behave around a rarity.
    The ABA is a very small organization, and most birders are not members for one reason or another, so the ABA does not represent the vasy majority and when they try to implement thier code upon others, what does it really mean or what is it’s worth, when it’s own members are breaking the rules?
    As for the video of the guy getting closer and closer, there was no need for it, and if found breaking any laws, then he should have been turned in to the local authorities. This is how I operate.

  • Bird Nut

    “Snowy Owls are dead birds flying”? …”Some part of their soul can be saved in a CMOS sensor chip”? A CMOS chip? This is disturbing.

  • I love this comment, Mike. I photograph, but with a budget-conscious telephoto lens, so I’m used to the smirks I get from big-gun photographers if I point out their ethical breaches in the field. I get the “yeah, I’m going to listen to you? With the $300 lens?” attitude. My experience in the field with other photographers emulates yours. True artistry and immersion with wildlife requires a lot more than money and a big gun. It’s an underlying philosophy of respect, as well as genuine connection to the animal and the experience. I lose respect immediately for photographers who rely on their gear for this sense of entitlement in the field. Given all of the recent problems with the Snowy Owl locations, including ones I witnessed at Boundary Bay, I admit I look at most wildlife closeups now with a sense of cynicism. I appreciate photographers who make a point to say how their photos were shot with strict ethics in mind.

  • Kudos Jeff for a well-balanced and thoughtful post!

    As a lifelong birder and pro photographer, I’ve watched the evolution of this issue with great interest and am fascinated by a couple of key aspects:
    1) The high reverence for owls. I call it birdism. Nobody gets this fired up when a nuthatch is flushed!
    2) The extreme reactions of some people to this issue. I’ve often wondered if the same self-righteous condemnors stand outside coffee shops and harrass people for not buying shade-grown lattes? Can you imagine what they might say/do to people who live in houses, drive cars, own pets, travel, eat bananas and contribute to overpopulation by having kids. Highly shameful activities with huge environmental impacts. [read sarcasm]

    In an era when society has become increasingly diconnected from nature, it’s worth celebrating everyone who is out birding or photographing, even those who flush owls. [Afterall, they could be at monster truck rallies or shopping for Prada handbags instead.] These are great opportunities to start balanced, rational discussions about bird impacts, rather than jumping to flagrant condemnation. I applaud you for doing so in your post Jeff, as well as the many people who followed up with great comments.

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