Ethics note: Even though I have a field code in mind when I photograph, there are times I have an unintended impact. Over time, through this process, the mistakes become fewer, and the interaction with the animals, much more fluid, natural and mutually agreeable.
This is an image where a minor wildlife ethics decision came into play — about the choices make each time we point a lens at a wild animal.
Do These Parrots Hate My Lens?
The wild parrots pictured here belong to a Southern California flock. Actually, they’re Mitred Parakeets. And a flock is known as a Pandemonium of Parrots, one that aptly describes the clamor of birds that descends each night at a parrot roost. I originally came upon this Pandemonium while detouring in a residential neighborhood in Long Beach.
Throughout California, these stunning and boisterous birds represent a number of different species, among them, the Red-masked Parakeets we find in San Francisco — the same birds featured in “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.”
Despite being acclimated to humans, the first time I photographed members of this particular flock, even from a distance, they burst into flight as soon as I pointed my lens. I found it odd, given their familiarity with city life. I hadn’t seen urban parrots behave so skittishly before, and I was concerned because there have been incidents, sadly, of wild parrots being shot farther south in San Diego. Hunted species often react negatively to pointed lenses.
Taking time to observe without my camera, I saw a pervasive nervousness. They were not going about their business in comfort. They were attuned to everything new in their environment, stopping their feeding or play for the slightest disruption. So although it disappointed me to put my camera away, I decided I would investigate their history before I tried photographing them again.
I contacted a California parrot organization to see if there was a record of disturbance in this area that might account for their discomfort. They responded that they hadn’t heard of any such incidents and would likely have if something had happened. As such, they expressed no particular caution about photographing this flock. There are plenty of Cooper’s Hawks and Peregrines in the region, and it’s possible the earlier sequence of events was a coincidental response to a predator in the sky.
On my next pass through the area, I tried again and paid attention the parrots’ response. Unlike the previous time, the birds were at peace in their routines, barely mindful of me except for a sideways glance, here and there. Their comfort level allowed for photos like these.
There was also another variable at my end. The first time, I photographed them, I did so from the car window, using the car as a blind. That’s often an effective technique for minimizing disturbance to wild animals. With these parrots, however, photographing from the window elicited more of a visible response and more scrutiny as all eyes turned toward the lens sticking out of the car window. Again, that could be mere coincidence, but it’s an anecdotal illustration of how differences between individuals, flocks, regions, or previous experience with humans affects how an animal will react to you personally. You have to get to know the animals on their terms and turf.
Since that time, I haven’t encountered the agitation present that day, and they’ve tolerated my short interludes, just as they do the dog walkers, leaf blowers, and garbage trucks of their urban habitat. It’s such a vibrant juxtaposition, to watch these tropical birds at play in the urban canopy of palm trees, street lights and modified-bitumen rooftops.
Here’s a growing gallery of images I’ve taken of wild parrots, both in Southern California and in San Francisco. The older images were shot mostly with a budget 70-300mm lens, the latest ones with my workhorse of a lens, the Olympus 50-200mm, or with my newer 300mm.
[Mitred Parakeets, photographed from a distance ~ Olympus E-M1 + 300mm f/4]