American Birding Podcast



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!