I just finished writing a term paper for my Environmental Ethics class, and thought I’d share it on my blog here. It’s about the ethics of some aspects of birding, and the paper is about 2500 words. If you have some time, give it a read and share your thoughts in the comments below! 🙂
Also, went birding at Swan Haven tonight where I counted 18 Trumpeter Swans. Spring has definitely sprung.
The Ethics of Birding
Environmental ethics are a huge concern and a prominent source of debate in western society today as philosophers, environmentalists, psychologists, and others delve into ideologies such as biocentrism. According to Byron Williston, “biocentrism is the view that living things can benefit from and be harmed by human actions and that this fact places moral constraints on how we are permitted to treat them. Indeed, it means that living things have intrinsic value” (2012, p. 53). Birds are a popular source of entertainment for people around the world, and are in some situations placed at high monetary and spiritual value. For example, in medieval times owning a Gyrfalcon was a privilege held only by the Royal families as a symbol of status and power. In the late 1800s people held competitive bird-shooting competitions in an effort to get the title of the best sharp shooter, and collection of eggs and chicks for use in specimen collections and scientific study were common (Sinclar, Nixon, Eckert, & Hughes. 2003, pp. 31). As philosophies like biocentrism arose and became popular, these practices were mostly abolished as unethical. However, they were replaced with new unethical activities such as baiting birds for photography, irresponsible use of birdsong playback, and general harassment of birds. In this paper I will present and discuss the various practices within birding that have been debated in terms of ethics and biocentrism from the late 1800s to the present day.
Modern birders and bird-watchers across North America participate in many of the bird counts that are hosted annually by local bird clubs and large organizations such as Bird Studies Canada and the Audubon Society. The Christmas Bird Counts are perhaps one of the most popular of these events with thousands of counts taking place across North America each December, including 13 held in the Yukon (National Audubon Society, 2015). The purpose of the count is to gain a better understanding of wintering bird populations across the continent and to raise public awareness of birds by getting people of all ages involved in bird counting activities – something I have been heavily involved in and am passionate about further pursuing. It is an important contributor to our current understanding of North American birds and bird conservation, but has an interesting beginning: In the late 1800s the Christmas Bird Count was a competitive shooting contest; whomever shot the most birds within 24 hours won a prize (Wild Birds Unlimited, 2015). I would imagine this resulted in massive bird declines as a person could literally shoot hundreds within such a time limit. In response, a group of 27 American birders led by a man named Frank Chapman recognized this practice as unethical and dispersed to 25 different locations to count birds on December 25th, 1900 in a protest against the competitive shooting (Wild Birds Unlimited, 2015). Chapman’s more conservative count became the biocentric-based tradition that is still popular today. Competitive shooting is one of the more obvious unethical practices of the early day, but many more exist in our past. The nest collection of chicks and eggs was pursued by hobbyists, museum collection specialists, and scientists for use in study and personal collections. Though these activities have been heavily regulated since then to prevent poaching and species decline (the Peregrine Falcon in particular was of concern) it still occurs with the possession of special permits. For example, with special permits it is legal in Alaska to shoot wild birds with a 22’ or bb-gun for specimen collections (University of Alaska, 2014), something I do not think should be allowed due to the fact that a life is being taken for the purpose of scientific displays. In the Yukon, only birds that have died in accident are added to collections. The main ethical concerns expressed on the subject of collections are population declines and it certainly does not contribute enough to science for a worthwhile return. However, collectors argue against this saying that there are already high rates of mortality in the bird world and that death via collection “is compensatory, not additive” (University of Alaska, 2014). Bird collections are an important source of genetic material that add to a better understanding of birds on the molecular level; as well, specimens give opportunity to examine bird biology and can be preserved as study skins to use in analysis of species and public education (University of Alaska, 2014). This is a case in which ethics conflict – a common occurrence when considering the environment and its relationship to people.
Today, unethical practices such as competitive bird shooting and nest collection by the public have been replaced with more modern practices that have fallen under strong ethical debate, including birdsong playback, owl baiting, and general harassment. Bird song playback is an issue that arose along with the invention of iPods and portable speakers; though attracting birds by playing recorded bird songs seems harmless enough, some worry that it will have serious side-effects on the breeding success of birds (Portlock, 2014). Song playback may result in a bird leaving its territory, perceiving the recording to be a more dominant bird. It may also cause unnecessary stress and energy loss to birds during their most energy-demanding times of year – migration and breeding season. As well, overused playback may also attract predators to nesting sites with the illusion that there are more prey birds in that area. Jeffrey Gordon, president of the American Birding Association also points out that “when we’re getting out, we’re trying to become more attentive to what’s around us, and playback—or any kind of overreliance on gadgetry—can quickly start to erode the experience” (Portlock, 2014). However, playback users argue “its use can be a less disruptive way to bring a bird into view, or elicit an audible response, rather than sending everyone thrashing through the thicket, possibly disrupting the birds’ natural habitat” (Portlock, 2014). I am guilty of using playback on occasion in the field, but I avoid overuse and exposure of it to those who are not okay with it. I know that overuse can negatively affect birds, but it is also a great way to draw birds closer when the need arises. There is a deep resentment of the issue on both sides, but professional birding organizations are trying to find a balance between the two by publishing guide material that includes playback recordings while stressing appropriate use and consideration for birds and other birders in the field. The American Birding Association recently adjusted their Code of Birding Ethics to address the issue of playback in the field by suggesting a limited use of recordings for general bird attraction and no use when twitching1 a rare bird or visiting a popular birding site (American Birding Association, 2015). Other birders can report playback users who do not follow this Code of Birding Ethics; some parks & reserves have even confiscated playback devices and banned playback over-users (Webmaster, 2014). The use of birdsong playback is a hot topic of debate in the technologically-advanced environmental world, but I believe that playback – if used responsibly – can enhance people’s outdoor experience.
Despite the amount of uproar the topic of playback inspires, perhaps the most heated ethical debates occur over the issue of baiting birds for photography – owls most specifically. Bird photography is a pastime enjoyed by most birders and many non-birders; it promotes appreciation, understanding of, and concern for birds. As a bird photographer myself, I know from personal experience that there is nothing quite like spending a great deal of time with a bird in a peaceful setting, waiting to get the perfect photo that captures the moment and special time I experienced with the wild bird in front of me. In these circumstances I have cautiously and respectfully approached the bird in its natural habitat, taking care not to disturb it and to let it approach me for the final distance. The emotional reward when it does come to you, seeming to not notice your existence is profound. The idea of raptor baiting is disgusting to me in its act of cruelty and treatment of the animals involved as “things.” Many photographers see the activity of photographing as more competitive or intense than it is theoretically supposed to be. It is often these types of photographers that use baiting to attract birds to the camera, especially when it comes to raptors. By approaching an owl or hawk and releasing live mice, photographers can often snatch spectacular photos of these majestic creatures in their full hunting glory – but is it ethical? The majority agree with me and say a loud NO. Blogger R. Dudley explains “This practice can have many negative effects on the birds – from making them dependent on an artificial food source to spreading disease to causing birds to be hit by cars – not to mention the ethical dilemma of “nature” photographers photographing birds in unnatural situations” (2011). Additionally, when it comes to raptors, many photographers “tease” the birds with live mice by pulling the mice away from the grip of sharp talons at the last minute. Not only is this cruel treatment of the helpless mouse tied to a string, it is also cruel to the raptors by wasting the energy they need to hunt in the first place. However, blogger S. Stiteler makes an interesting point. Why is chumming for seabirds on pelagic trips, feeding the ravens and gulls your leftovers, and maintaining bird feeders (like I do) publically acceptable while raptor baiting is not? She points out that the main reason is because “these birds … were well away from a road. Birds weren’t being attracted to a busy street. The birds were flying in and getting fed, not teased by having the food taken away. None of the bait offered here was live” (2013). Owl baiting, along with other photography practices such as flash-photographing actively hunting nocturnal birds at night and close approach of active nests inspired adjustments to the American Birding Associations “Code of Birding Ethics” as well as to The North American Nature Photography Association’s “Principles of Ethical Field Practices.” These amendments included rules addressing vegetation disruption near nests, disruption of the bird’s natural cycles, disturbance of nests, and care with use of flash for nocturnal birds. Organizations are now making huge efforts towards the welfare of nature and finding balance in human-animal interactions in the face of some substantial public opposition.
These unethical practices are part of the broader issue of general bird harassment and disturbance of which nearly every person on the planet is guilty of, some more than others. Britain is well known for its high number of birders and the obsessive competitiveness they exhibit. British newspapers report “twitcher madness” in which hundreds of birders gather in one area to see a rare bird. One article writes, “local police were forced to cordon off streets after hundreds of desperate bird-watchers descended on a suburban home in Hampshire last year when a rare Spanish sparrow fluttered into somebody’s garden” (Faiola, 2013). Not only is the intensity of the situation overwhelming and even dangerous to the bird, it is stressful enough to even be dangerous to humans! British twitcher Tim Lawman died from a stress-induced heart attack while rushing to see a rare Radde’s Warbler in Hampshire during October, 2013 (Faiola, 2013). I’m lucky in that here in the Yukon a rare bird will draw at the very most four birders at a time, all of who take care to avoid disturbing the bird. Most bird harassment is a result of a person just wanting to see, or maybe even touch a bird, though some harass birds unintentionally or maliciously as well. Deliberate harassment of birds is ethically unacceptable but unfortunately is something that everyone is guilty of – including myself. I remember when I was 13 and newly in love with birds there was nothing I wanted more than to be able to touch one of those delicate, feathered creatures. I took every opportunity possible to try and do so; this included chasing Junco fledglings around the greenbelt in early summer when they were still unable to fly. At the time I thought there to be nothing wrong with this, though through my urgency to capture one I did feel slightly bad for terrorizing it. The day I finally caught one and held the poor, trembling thing in my shaking hands, I was held in awe by the true beauty of nature – that such a fragile thing could survive predators like myself and learn to fly. I then released it and never tried to catch one again. In the textbook “Environmental Ethics for Canadians,” Byron Williston quotes an expert in the food industry who says “cruelty is acknowledged only when profitability ceases” (2012, p. 34), which was true in my case. Though I was not profiting monetarily from chasing down the fledgling I was satisfying my own want and personally benefitted from the cruelty I acknowledged only after the fact. I knew afterwards that what I had done was wrong and that besides terrifying the bird to near death I may have even caused its parents to abandon it. My quest for that moment of glory and intimacy may have resulted in its eventual death, whether directly or indirectly, and I recognized it as ethically wrong.
The ethics of our actions as human beings are constantly being debated and judged on the basis of philosophies like biocentrism, and these ethics may vary from person to person. What one person may think is good another may disagree with, and in the birding world there are many activities that occur that are deemed by most as ethically unacceptable. I believe that as individuals we should always choose the action that causes the least harm and stress to any living creature as a contributing member of the web of life that encompasses this entire planet. Obviously environmental ethics are a huge concern and a prominent source of debate in today’s western society as ideologies such as biocentrism become more ingrained in our collective psychology, even within seemingly harmless past-times such as birding.
1 twitching: the act of searching for a rare bird that someone else has reported.
American Birding Association. (2015). Principles of birding ethics. Retrieved from
Dudley, R. (2011). “Baiting” – a matter of definition and ethics. Feathered Photography.
Faiola, A. (2013). In Britain, bird-watching gone wild. The Washington Post. Retrieved from
National Audubon Society (2015). Summary of the 114th Christmas bird count, 2013-2014.
Portlock, S. (2014). Birders use smartphones to play bird songs. The Wall Street Journal.
Sinclair, P. H, Nixon,W. A, Eckert, C. D, Hughes, N. L. (2003). Birds of the Yukon Territory. UBC Press, pp. 31.
Stiteler, S. (2013). When is bird-baiting ok. 1000birds. Retrieved from
University of Alaska Museum Department of Ornithology, (2014). (Re)affirming the specimen
gold standard. Retrieved at http://www.universityofalaskamuseumbirds.org/reaffirming-the-specimen-gold-standard/
Webmaster. (2014). Watch out for unethical birding in FRIM. Forest Research Insititute
Malaysia – Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. Retrieved from
Wild Birds Unlimited (2015). Christmas bird counts. Retrieved from: http://edmonton.wbu.com/content/show/91258
Williston, B. (2012). Environmental ethics for canadians. Oxford University, pp.34-53.