Wildlife Viewing Ethics and Etiquette--Respect Wildlife and Other People

by Range Bayer. Last update: 2 February 2012

General Comments

To some birders, ethics may mean whether or not they can include a certain species as "countable" for their Life List because it may be from a nonestablished population of escaped birds. Or ethics may mean determining where a County or State boundary is, so that their sightings can be legitimately included on a particular County or State List.

To other birders, ethics could be directed towards maintaining or building good relationships with other people, especially nonbirders. For example, birders respecting private property owners or creating a good image for birders (e.g., see New Jersey Audubon Birding Ethics link above).

But to many others, wildlife or birding ethics also includes respecting wildlife, so that the viewer's impact on wildlife is inconsequential. This is covered in the ABA's Ethics: "In any conflict of interest between birds and birders, the welfare of the birds and their environment comes first."

Of concern is publicizing locations of nests or roosting sites that are vulnerable to human disturbance, especially of sensitive bird species. Publicity can include leading field trips to the site to point out nests or roosts, printed articles about the site, or giving the location on email discussion groups such as Oregon Birders On-Line. Even if the location of a newly-discovered sensitive site has already been publicized once, I would hope others would refrain from doing so again. The ABA's ethics are relevant; for example, in their 1(c): "The sites of rare nesting birds should be divulged only to the proper conservation authorities." For Oregonians, that would be the U.S. Fish and Wildlife or Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The issue of respecting all wildlife is relevant to Lincoln County because the following have happened in Lincoln County, and this is not a comprehensive list:

1) At one Great Blue Heron colony I was studying, someone came in and shot all young in the nests. The Oregon State Police conducted an unsuccessful investigation, but even if they had found who had shot the birds, it would not compensate the loss.
If colony sites are publicized, they rarely can be protected here. Telling someone you trust may be OK, but if each person tells someone else, someone may eventually be told, who may harass or shoot wildlife.

2) There have been several rare birds in Lincoln County that I feel may have departed sooner than they would have otherwise because of birders, photographers, or others approaching the bird too closely. Sometimes birds are flushed intentionally to determine details of their plumage--if this was done once, it might not be a problem, but if every birder does so, then disturbance becomes a problem. For example, a Snowy Owl in South Beach had been present for several weeks but disappeared within 3 days of a newspaper article about its location.

3) Disturbance by viewers is not limited to birds. At Yaquina Bay, killer whales occasionally come into the Bay in April near tax time. This creates a lot of excitement, with people eager to see them. Observers from shore or the Yaquina Bay Bridge have no impact, except that they may get so excited that they endanger their own safety. If there is time, boats go out to see the orcas, and sometimes it seems that a few of these boats get too close because a few boaters want to get as close as they can or get a better picture, and then they can have an impact on the whales. I remember one time when it appeared as if a boat drove the whales out of the Bay by following them too closely.

4) In Lincoln County, river otters have also been trapped for their fur. Accordingly, in the newsletter of Yaquina Birders & Naturalists, the locations of otter sightings have not been given because some people would rather see otters in the wild than to have them trapped. By giving the location and the word spreading from reader to friend to acquaintance, there is a risk of their location becoming known to someone who would want to trap them.

5) When Snowy Plovers still nested in Lincoln County, a birder took his dog out to help him find a nest because he had never seen their nest before.

Spirited Discussion about Disclosing a Peregrine Falcon Nesting Site in Lincoln County, Oregon

The following is part of a spirited email exchange between two birders (Birders "A" and "B") and myself about their disclosing the location of a Peregrine Falcon nest on Oregon Birders On-Line (OBOL), a free email discussion group with 500+ subscribers.

X=relatively well-known Peregrine nest site 1, Y=Peregrine nest site 2 location disclosed by birders on OBOL. Joel Pagel has been a Pacific Northwest Pereregrine Falcon researcher since 1983; he writes: "During my work, we have been to nest sites where falconers were caught illegally entering the site to collect young, locations where climbers were harassing the birds on purpose to make them fail so the restrictions on climbing would be lifted, or places where birders have tried to get closer to either photograph or just to enjoy the view."

The following spirited exchange points out that the wildlife viewing ethics issue is more complex than it may first seem. On one hand, as Birder B expresses well, showing people wildlife can help them appreciate wildlife more. On the other hand, as I try to explain, the location of every nest site does not have to be publicized, and it is best if only biologists know the locations of some sites.

Birder A's Comments

Birder A noted that he had considered the advisability of disclosing the Y location and defended his decision to disclose the location of Y on OBOL:"In this case THOUSANDS of tourists and bird watchers visit that overlook EVERY DAY. There is no way to see the nest or get closer to it. In fact, most birders there never knew they were standing 30 feet from a falcon nest, and never saw a falcon at all. I foresaw (and still foresee) no impact on this nest by disclosing the location to the public."

Response to Birder A

Birder A was mistaken that site Y is inaccessible. Joel Pagel notes that he has climbed to the Y nest site during numerous occasions. If he can get to it, others can also. If people don't know a nest is there, they will not try to get to it. If it is known, then someone other than researchers can try to access it.

Birder B's Comments

In response to my comments that the location of nest Y should not have been divulged on OBOL, Birder B wrote: "I've been in the researcher shoes, and felt protective of the birds I was seeing, learning about, and enjoying daily. I am also a birder and trip leader who regularly sees the light of joy come into people's faces when I show them a new bird. More than once I have shared my scope view of the X Peregrines with tourists who came by while I was looking at the birds. The people, nearly universally, have been awed (religious word: "take off your shoes, you are on holy ground") to see these birds. I'll cite one experience: I was at the Yaquina Head viewing platform one winter day, when a beautiful adult Peregrine sat facing me across the chasm, sitting on the big rock. A 30-something woman in casual clothes and her mother, dressed to the nines, appeared on the platform. I shared the close, full-lens scope view of the front of the Peregrine with the two ladies. The older woman broke into tears at the magnificent beauty of the sight. She was truly moved. They thanked me profusely.

"If we want people to know wildlife, love wildlife, and care for it, the face-to-face view in the open air beats the sox off all the well-produced brochures and TV specials we can muster, not to mention all scientific reports documenting research data."

My response to Birder B:

Thanks for your message and perspective.

"I, too, have led many field trips over the years and have seen the "awe" in people's eyes after they have looked through my scope at Peregrines or Bald Eagles.

"I, too, believe in the importance of getting people out and having people see Nature first hand. I, too, believe that doing so is essential for wildlife conservation.

"I, too, believe that it is important that not all information is hidden in dry, scientific documents accessible to only a few people.

"But, in my opinion, these issues ENTIRELY miss the point that is being made about publicizing the Y Peregrine nest location.

"In my opinion, it was unnecessary and ill-advised to publicize the exact location of the Y Peregrine nest on OBOL. With over 500 subscribers to OBOL and additional people being able to access it in digest form from birding web sites, there is a reasonable chance that someone can use that information or pass it on to others in a way that will be detrimental to the Peregrines. In past years, I have seen at least two falconers post on OBOL. Falconers are not the only issue because some birders/photographers can also cause disturbance as they try to get ever closer to get that perfect picture.

"As you noted, you have shown people the X Peregrine nest--that is great, keep showing it to people! That site is well known and is very appropriate for doing so. But that does not mean that every Peregrine nest site should be fair game for display.

"Yes, many people visit the Y site and could be relatively near the nest site. But they didn't know it, and until it was pointed out to them, they could be blithely ignorant of it, which is good for the birds. And it may also be good for public safety as the nest is near a cliff edge--liability lawsuits being what they are, one can never tell what may happen if someone becomes too curious and falls off as they try to peer into the nest.

"Another way of teaching people about Nature is explaining to them that there are some sites that birders should not go to because the risk of people disturbing the animals is too significant. During my field trips, some have asked if I knew of any Bald Eagle nests and would I take them there. I say that I do know, but that I do not take people to them because they are too sensitive. I tell them about Bald Eagles being still shot occasionally in western Oregon, and of hearing about young being shot out of the Yaquina Bay nest when I first came here. I tell them of a man between Toledo and Newport who told me with conviction that he would shoot any Bald Eagle that came near his chickens--he lived within 5 miles of an eagle nest. I tell them about how Bald Eagles are easily disturbed at nests, even if most people and many birders are too insensitive to recognize the signs. What may appear to most people as an inconsequential behavior by an eagle at a nest is, to an experienced eye, a sign that the eagle is being disturbed. I tell them that there is too great a risk of someone harming the birds if the nest is publicized as people tell their friends, who tell their friends, etc. People may be disappointed that I don't take them to the eagle nest, but after I explain the situation, they understand, and, in my opinion, have a considerably deeper understanding of wildlife than if they are taken everywhere they desire as if it was no big deal.

"When people understand that there are sacred sites (e.g., a secret Peregrine nest), they develop a more sacred viewpoint of wildlife.

"When it is explained that some sites are more important to animals than to people recreationally gawking at them, people are "awed," too. But if this is not explained and any site is fair game for gawking, how can people develop a sense that they can have a negative impact?

"If people are led to believe that no place is sacred, then is it any surprise when that is the way they act?

"I think it is great that there are so many places in Oregon to show people wildlife that are reasonably safe for birds as well as birders. Yaquina Head is a gem for showing people nesting seabirds and Peregrines when they sometimes perch. But, in my opinion, the Y nesting site is not one of those places.

Go to Lincoln County (Oregon) Bird Information or Lincoln County (Oregon) Natural History Information

Email comments to Range Bayer or see Yaquina.Info Page, Newport, Oregon 97365 USA.