Ethical Bird Photography

Audubon’s Guide to Ethical Bird Photography

Respect for birds and their habitats must come before getting that perfect shot. Here’s how to be a responsible bird photographer.  Credit:  Audubon Society

The first essential element in bird photography is a sincere respect for the birds and their environment. In any conflict of interest, the well-being of the birds and their habitats must come before the ambitions of the photographer. Here are some basic guidelines.

Avoid causing unnecessary disturbance or stress to birds.

  • Use a telephoto lens or a blind for close-up shots. If your approach causes a bird to flush (fly or run away) or change its behavior, you’re too close.
  • Some birds may “freeze” in place rather than flying away, or may hunch into a protective, aggressive, or pre-flight stance. Watch for changes in posture indicating that the birds are stressed, and if you see these, back away.
  • Never advance on a bird with the intention of making it fly.
  • Use flash sparingly (if at all), as a supplement to natural light. Avoid the use of flash on nocturnal birds at night, as it may temporarily limit their ability to hunt for food.
  • Before sharing locations of specific birds with other photographers or birders, think carefully about potential impacts to the birds or their habitats.
  • Concern for birds’ habitat is also essential. Be aware of your surroundings. Avoid trampling sensitive vegetation or disturbing other wildlife.

Nesting birds are particularly vulnerable, and need special consideration

  • Keep a respectful distance from the nest. If you’re using a macro lens or including the nest as a focal point in an image with a wide-angle lens, even if you’re operating the camera remotely, you’re probably too close. Telephoto lenses of at least 500mm are recommended.
  • Avoid flushing the adults or scaring the young, or doing anything to draw the attention of predators to the nest. For example, repeatedly walking to a nest can leave both a foot trail and scent trail for predators.
  • Do not move or remove anything around the nest, as it may be providing both essential camouflage and protection from the elements.
  • Never use drones to photograph nests, as they can cause injury and stress to the nestlings and parents. 

Luring birds closer for photography is often possible but should be done in a responsible way.

  • Birdfeeding stations, whether or not they’re used for photography, should be kept clean, stocked only with appropriate food items, and positioned with the birds’ safety in mind.
  • Never lure hawks or owls with live bait, or with decoys such as artificial or dead mice. Baiting can change the behavior of these predatory birds in ways that are harmful for them.
  • Playback of bird voices to lure them close for photography should be used sparingly, and not at all in the case of endangered birds, or birds at critical points in their nesting cycle.

Show respect for private and public property, and consideration for other people.

  • Enter private land only with permission. On public property such as parks and refuges, be aware of local regulations, hours, and closed areas.
  • In group situations, be considerate of other photographers and birders who may be watching the same bird. Remember that your desire to photograph the bird doesn’t outweigh the rights of others to observe it. Remember also that large groups of people are potentially more disturbing to birds, so it may be necessary to keep a greater distance.

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