“Ninety-nine percent of lawyers give the rest a bad name.” OK, the joke is old, but it puts me in mind that a few naughty birders can spoil it for the rest of us. It’s time we had this little talk.
The need for birding etiquette is well understood. The American Birding Association publishes the ABA Code of Ethics, which can be found at www.aba.org. It contains four groups of basic principles that should guide all birding activities. Much of our enjoyment occurs on the private land of others, so continued access means that we demonstrate full respect for that property and its owners. Among other standards, the ABA stresses these: “a) Do not enter private property without the owner’s explicit permission, b) Follow all laws, rules, and regulations governing use of roads and public areas, both at home and abroad, and c) Practice common courtesy in contacts with other people. Your exemplary behavior will generate goodwill with birders and nonbirders alike.”
I bring this up now because birding behavior is changing. Advances in digital photography have brought affordable cameras and long lenses into the mainstream. When we were merely in visual pursuit of a bird, our hobby was relatively unobtrusive to others. With good binoculars, it was sufficient to admire a bird from a respectful distance. Even for those of us who keep a life list of birds we’ve seen, it has always been adequate to identify a new bird from afar.
But I submit that cameras are changing the boundaries. It is no longer enough to simply appreciate a bird through binoculars. Now we are often trying to get a photo so impressive that we can make our friends say “wow.” Some of us are stepping over the line. I mean that literally. I have seen some birders step over a property line clearly marked No Trespassing in order to get a better photo.
The owl invasion this winter brought the issue to a head. Snowy owls irrupted into Maine in unprecedented numbers this year. Most of the owls showed more sense than we did. They settled onto public property and offered themselves up for easy viewing. Perhaps half a dozen snowy owls wintered on the mountaintops of Acadia. One roosted frequently on Nubble Island in York. Two others were often spotted on islands and shoals at Biddeford Pool. Several owls were tallied in midcoast state parks.
But a few chose to roost reliably on private property. Once word got out, it was not unusual for dozens of birders to go take a look. I’ve known landowners who were initially pleased at having a rare bird on their property. Slowly, their pleasure turned to dismay as crowds arrived and simple etiquette was disregarded by a few.
Besides snowy owls, a rare northern hawk-owl took up residence in central Maine very early in winter.
It’s the only hawk-owl reported in Maine this season and lots of people from around New England went to visit it. As the trickle of people became a torrent, parked cars blocked roads and driveways and damaged shoulders. A few birders ignored signs and bolted through front yards. Sometimes the owl was baited into approaching photographers for a better shot.
You may have noticed that I let the entire winter go by without mentioning this northern hawk-owl. Under these circumstances, it would have only gotten worse if some imbecile had printed the location of a rare bird in his weekly birding column. In fact, I made the personal choice to not visit this hawk-owl because I didn’t want to add to the chaos. The photo accompanying today’s column is a bird I snapped from a respectful distance using a spotting scope on its breeding grounds in Churchill, Manitoba.
And one more thing: It used to be that the reporting of a rare species could be supported by field notes, other eye witnesses and the overall competence of the reporter. But photography is now so widespread that a snapshot has become the acceptable standard of evidence for a rarity. This increases the pressure to get that good photo, and it may be time to reaffirm our Code of Ethics and make sure it applies to camera work.
Lastly, there is a difference between birding etiquette and birding ethics. There is a whole range of proper behaviors that we need to observe in order to minimize harm to the bird itself. I leave that discussion for another day. My soapbox is getting wobbly.
Bob Duchesne serves in the Maine Legislature, is president of the Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon, created the Maine Birding Trail and is the author of the trail guidebook of the same name. He can be reached at email@example.com.