Photographer-Bird Disturbance in Perspective

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Photographer-Bird Disturbance in Perspective

2020-02-13T21:25:54+00:00April 8th, 2012|Birds, Ethics, Photography|2 Comments

Today, I came upon a contentious thread about bird banding on my local birding listserv. This thread made me think of the emails I got in response to my Snowy Owl post — the post which criticized the photography field ethics we witnessed up at Boundary Bay. On today’s listserv, a member birder had concerns about the effects of banding on birds like dippers. The subsequent conversation veered toward some strong opinions, and someone posted an Arthur Morris quote from 2009, from, where Morris talked about the impact of mist nests on birds.

Racing Pigeon Bands

Bands on a Racing Pigeon – ©ingridtaylar

I followed the link to that thread and read through Morris’s comments. Morris was defending the position of photographers in situations where they are unjustly scrutinized and criticized. He gave examples of how photographer disturbance of wildlife pales in comparison to more intrusive activities, and yet photographer access to some wild places is restricted based on perceived impact.

A few of Morris’s comments were precisely what one of the photographers said to me, in defending his field actions with Snowy Owls. For example, Morris pointed out how photographers are burdened with many more restrictions and prohibitions than hunters are on refuges. My email correspondent said the same thing — that guys were hunting in the same area where photographers were getting close to Snowy Owls, so who was causing more of a problem? (For the record, I agree about the disproportionate privilege afforded hunting on public lands, and have written about this subject previously.) Morris said, “At an NWR in northern Missouri …. all visitors MUST be off the tour roads by sunset. When I asked the refuge manager why, he stated that it was to protect the integrity of the refuge. Strange, as there are numerous hunting clubs on the eastern border of the refuge where the geese are shot at dawn each day.”

Morris also discussed distress from banding, surveying and other biologist measures which can have significant impact on birds and colonies. He wrote, “Hey, I have often stated that one team of researchers in a tern colony causes more disturbance on a single day than all US bird photographers combined in a year.” I thought about the bold wing tags I recently photographed, and effects of careless banding I’ve witnessed, such as toes caught in bands, bands choking a leg, birds injured while escaping from the banders … and I know Morris has valid and arguable points.

California Clapper Rail Tagging – ©ingridtaylar

Of course, this discussion made me look again at my view of wildlife photography and wildlife photography ethics. If it’s true — and it is — that so many other pursuits cause wildlife much more distress than what photographers can inflict, why do I sometimes come down on photographers — in effect, calling out my own? Is it even fair to do so when you put photographic activity in the context of the bigger picture?

Reading through the above threads, I admit, I felt a sense of protectiveness for my fellow wildlife photographers, the many who do take field craft very seriously. Morris talked about a biologist who cautioned him that if a bird even looked at him, he was disturbing that bird … all the while actual shooting of those birds with shotguns was happening nearby. Morris wrote,”your images have inspired folks to protect the environment, save sensitive areas, get folks inspired to open their wallets. Who cares? You once disturbed a bird by walking towards it with your lens.”

I understand Morris’s sentiments here, and agree that a lot of what we photographers do doesn’t even come close to the harm inflicted by other human activities. The reason I still argue for stringent wildlife photography ethics, irrespective of what others are doing, is because it’s too easy and dangerous to fall into the tu quoque (the “you, too”) pattern of logical fallacy. That is, people will rationalize their own behavior by saying “well, he does something even worse, so I’m justified in doing what I’m doing.” I run into this argument frequently when I engage hunters in debates about wildlife ethics. I wish I had a Euro for every time I was told, “vegans cause harm, too, so I can do whatever I like to the ______ [insert “deer,” “ducks,” etc].” It’s flawed reasoning that leads to bad results.

I know that as a photographer, I’m in a unique and visible position, often stationed for hours at one spot where people are watching what I do. Beyond an inherent commitment to the well-being of the animal I’m photographing, I’ve found that other people do learn how to engage wildlife by watching what the photographer does. I’ve had the experience of people deciding to walk way around a flock of shorebirds, as one example, after they’ve chatted with me about the birds and what they’re doing on the beach. It’s a small gesture in the big picture of chaos that is this world, but the small actions do add up.

I know that causing a bird to fly from one perch to the next doesn’t inflict the same harm as if I were pointing a shotgun at that bird — and I don’t equate the two when I suggest a stringent set of ethics. I just I expect myself to be more diligent because I understand the repercussions of disturbing wildlife, which can be significant and even lethal. When my clear and stated intent is to cause no harm, it would be hypocritical to behave otherwise, no matter what anyone else around me is doing. Furthermore, as stated in the Arthur Morris threads, the bad behavior of a few photographers creates problems for photographers overall, in terms of reputation, respect and access to birding locations. When you then bring a number of photographers together in a scenario like the one we witnessed at Boundary Bay, field ethics are critical because of the incessant pressure the animals experience with that many humans in their midst. In the best of all worlds, by engaging in a way that hits a higher mark, I have a chance to inspire others to do the same. That’s always my hope, even though I know birds do look back at me when I point my lens.

Related posts: First … Signs of Snowies | Snowy Owls, Boundary Bay and Rethinking My Own Motivations | Staging Nature Shots | Marine Mammal Viewing From a Distance | Wildlife Photography Ethics Matter

Me, photographing Clapper Rail Banding – ©hughgrew


  1. Dr. Johanna van de Woestijne April 3, 2013 at 4:06 pm - Reply

    I agree completely with your take on the need for photographers to behave themselves in preserves. Even biologists sometimes fail to study (control for) the impacts of their methods. Here are two links referring to a study of flipper tags causing reduced reproductive viability of the banded penguins, due to flipper drag. It is hard to find control studies that actually collect data on the effects of banding versus non-banded (or subdermal implants) target subjects.
    “Over a decade, flipper-banded penguins produced 39 percent fewer chicks and had a 44 percent lower survival rate, compared with penguins that did not have bands but had microchips inserted under the skin, according to the study, which appears in the journal Nature.” Penguins had been studied for 50 years using the flipper banding method, without realization that the banding and bands themselves could reduce viability. The controls had not been done.
    How damaging are photographers? You point out that they can have high visibility, but I think that may be part of a bigger problem in understanding the relative damages various factors might be doing. Hunters are very active during certain seasons and feral cats have low visibility but can be very damaging. Off leash dogs (illegal, but not enforced) can make resting habitat non-viable, but there is no outcry. What are the relatively most important damaging factors? I don’t know, but I suspect photography is near the bottom of the list, not the top. However, you can usually talk sense to a photographer. But, euthanizing feral cats and fines for feeding feral cat colonies is an uphill battle. Dogs are as sacred as children, so enforcing regulations is a no go. Biologists are necessary and hunters are sacred cows. So, that leaves us talking to each other, just because we’ll listen and even change our behavior, when there may in fact be bigger damaging factors at play.

  2. M. Firpi April 6, 2013 at 7:13 am - Reply

    The euthanizing of feral cats dilemma is not what I usually hear, but rather the neutering. The feral kitties will always be just that: feral, even after neutering. Even neutered cats like to go outside at some point, it’s in their genes. When I had my cat, which by the way, lived to be 26 years, I had him neutered and lived with fenced-in balconies, thinking it would keep him off the streets. Was I wrong! He managed to escape and brought in a sparrow fledgeling in his mouth. I had to watch my cat eat it in front of me, and hear the desperate fledgeling’s cry! Another time, he managed to get out again and got a “Coqui”, a sacred amphibian endemic to Puerto Rico. I managed to save that one because he didn’t like amphibians as much as he liked birds. So educating people about keeping their cats indoors seems to be more of a social dilemma, referring to the “hoarders” who keep huge feral cat colonies hanging around everywhere and feeding them too. But even educated people leave their cats outdoors at some point because they feel that feline hunting instinct take hold of their felines. It’s the struggle between the human and the domesticated creature; humans want “pets”, but yet are ultimately dominated by them. I’m reading Lorenz “On Agression”.

    As for the banding, I just saw some images of Monarchs getting a sticker “tag” on their wings. This is to trace the specimens that make it through the yearly migration. Humans just have that need to “crack open” puzzles and enigmas. They have to get a “hold” of situations.

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