Raptor Photography Ethics

16 November 2014

I asked several bird photographers what actions they considered harassment of raptors. I asked only of raptors since the HWI blog deals almost exclusively with raptors, however, many of their responses pertains to bird photography in general. It seems almost all agree on certain aspects of harassment, but opinions always vary on any subject, so I'd love to hear comments from anyone! This post was written now because bird photographers are especially out and about in winter, and ethical discussions tend to get brought up during this period. My only hope regarding this post is that some will think twice before taking actions that most consider disturbance. BTW, If any comments are posted that have a nasty tone or are truly obnoxious, I will delete them immediately, so be civil even if you are emotional about the subject. Rude discussions are never effective!

What defines harassment? The USF&W Service defines harassment in the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act as "pursue, shoot, shoot at, poison, wound, kill, capture, trap, collect, molest, or disturb" (16 U.S.C. 668c; 50 CFR 22.3). Penalties for violating provisions of the Act may result in a maximum fine of $5,000 or one year imprisonment with $10,000 or not more than two years in prison for a second conviction. Felony convictions carry a maximum fine of $250,000 or two years of imprisonment. The fine doubles for an organization. Rewards are provided for information leading to arrest and conviction for violation of the Act. Another federal law defines "harass" as "an intentional or negligent act or omission that disrupts a bird's normal behavioral patterns."

I edited and summarized the responses since they were quite long, so I omitted the photographers names. Here is a synopsis of the comments:

-----
I try to operate by the ABA Code of Ethics, but this thread is thought provoking in terms of how the principles of that code are interpreted. Birds can and do express their discomfort by voice, posture, and behavior. They engage in fight or flight just as humans do when they don't feel safe. A few examples we've all seen and/or experienced would be causing a bird to take prey to another plucking spot while attempting to photograph it, birds that fly from one pole to another while being photographed, owls that stand erect when discovered at a daytime roost, and so on. In general, I think it is harassment when we deliberately repeat or sustain a behavior that is modifying the bird's normal or preferred behavior. However, when a bird is essentially anchored to a nest or roosting site it is a different story. Causing a parent to scream, swoop, hold back from the nest when it is trying to bring food, or abandon its young is harassment. If normal nesting behavior is disrupted, the birds are being harassed. We sometimes scorn a photographer for bumping birds from one pole to another while thinking it's okay to trap, handle, and band a migrating bird. Birds in-hand often have their hackles up in the photos I've seen, so they clearly are not enjoying the experience. It seems that our view of and sensitivity to birds being harassed sometimes depends on our own interests.

-----

While I find baiting of raptors for photos a near criminal activity and the use of owl decoys a controversial topic, it should be mentioned that owl decoys were used at migration sites long before photographing raptors became popular. Baiting birds, by many (not me) is considered no different than feeding them and that is the argument of those indifferent to it. There is one activity unique to photographers that is harassment in the true sense of the word. That is the relentless pursuit of forcing a bird to leave its perch for the sole purpose of the photographer to get their "shot of a lifetime!" This activity is appalling and has little regard for the bird itself. It is done merely for the self-gratification of the photographer and the adoration they hope to get from others. It is done for them and them only...the only photos I trust were taken ethically or as close to ethically as possible are my own.

-----

I think what bothers me the most is when photographers attempt to flush a bird in order to obtain a flight shot. I think birdcalls are ok, but not on breeding birds and not in excess. It is easy for us photographers to try and "minimize" our presence as much as possible, but we must also remember that we are part of nature and we interact with nature everyday purposefully or not. The impact on a bird is the same from the group of cyclists who are completely oblivious to the presence of the bird, as the impact would be if you had accidentally flushed a bird with your movements, and yet we tend to feel the weight of responsibility on our shoulders. It is easy to focus on how we may impact the wildlife we photograph, but we must also acknowledge that we are all part of an incredibly complex ecosystem where every action has a reaction (ala the butterfly effect).

-----

Photographing nesting birds is absolutely unethical. IT MAKES NO DIFFERENCE if a photographer believes they are a safe distance from a nest (I find this to be untrue most times anyway). The real issue arises when other photographers see images of nesting birds and and assume that it is OK to approach nests 'if they are careful.' Sharing or posting images of nesting birds teaches others inappropriate behavior! I wish magazine and book editors had ethics, they could make a statement by not publishing such images, making those images lose value. Bumping birds from their perches is a form of harassment. Raptors are territorial and sometimes the territory they claimed or fought for is an extremely limited space. Causing raptors to fly towards the territory of another bird is potentially dangerous. I have seen photographers bump birds from roadside poles only to see the bird nearly get hit by a car. If a photographer flushes a bird and causes injury to the bird (car hit, electrocution, etc.), the photographer is liable for that injury or death. Baiting raptors is unethical! The argument that one is helping a raptor survive is self serving and dishonest. Introducing a foriegn food source (pet store mice) into the wild is an atrocious act. Feeding a hawk a store bought chicken (full of hormones and antibiotics) is irresponsible. Hawks often fight over bait and injure each other. and a hawk that waits all day to feed on bait but lacks the fortitude to get its share, could lead to its demise. AND, it takes no skill to photograph a baited bird! It is easy to recognize such a photo, and I will call attention to any baited photo I see from now on.

-----

If you are photographing any wildlife, you are having an impact no matter what. And the question then is do the benefits outweigh the negatives? There are so many people out there photographing wildlife these days. But are those photographers, whether pro or amateur, transforming the experience of that impact into some sort of conservation, awareness, or education? Generally speaking, I believe photographers should stay clear of nests, never bait, and never stalk a bird if they already caused it to flush. Photographing raptors in flight on migration has the least impact.

-----

In proportion to many other bird-oriented activities, photography is fairly passive. What about chumming on pelagic trips? The ocean is a very big place, seems an effective way to get an idea of what is out there, but it's a form of baiting. For years I was one of the holdouts who didn't have a smart phone with birding apps, but I finally got a tablet a couple years ago, and I have to admit it works, and is a cost effective way to see birds that are very difficult to find otherwise.

-----

Baiting birds absolutely unethical. I've taken subversive steps to disrupt baiting by a well-known local falconer and seasonal bird photographers. Witnessing Northern Harriers injure each other fighting over a frozen chicken was all it took to solidify my stance on baiting. Here's a quandary, and something difficult to define: I call it 'passive-aggressive' bird harassment -- positioning myself for a shot, knowing someone else will inevitably push it. For example, at Farmington Bay, UT there's a tree at the bottom of the hill that raptors use. 9 out of 10 times birds will remain perched and allow close approach until another vehicle flushes it. If I know the bird will flush and leveraged the other person's bad behavior to my advantage, is that harassment? I believe it is. I'm glad wildlife photography ethics is an ongoing topic. As the hobby/profession continues to grow, those who know better can be an example to the less informed.

-----

I can think of examples of a number of individuals who I have personally seen cause undo stress to birds for their own personal enjoyment or photo ops. As photographers, birders, and hunters, WE ALL have a negative impact on birds in one way or another. And even what some may think are innocuous actions can have unfavorable effects on the birds we view.

-----

- Nest harassment (getting too close and causing the adults to repeatedly dive at or scream at intruders)
- Baiting with live animals (I don't consider plastic owl decoys baiting, though I don't typically use one)
- Getting too close (some photographers are never satisfied, no matter how close--they'd get head shots of every bird if they could)
- Repeatedly bumping feeding or resting birds
- Showing no courteousness when others are looking at a rare bird from a distance, approaching too closely and flushing it (noting gives photographers a worse rap in the birding community)

-----

I find baiting to be extremely egregious when in search of "THE shot." I am also bothered by photographers who constantly bump or chase perched birds for a picture. Nest photos also belong on the harassment list. I know I sometimes wonder "am I getting too close". What we can all do is make sure to get the message out that poor photography behavior is not acceptable.

-----

A problem arises when photographers have the mindset that they have to get a shot at all costs and don't understand what these costs are. We all want to observe and get close to raptors, but there is a set of rules we all need to abide by. The bird is always more important than the photo. Baiting is NEVER okay. Most birders are morally conscious, but a lot of people don't understand how baiting, chasing, or playing callbacks may affect raptor reproduction or survival. If they were made aware, they might stop supporting those who do these actions. It's all about awareness, and the blog is a good way to add to the conversation.

-----

I think any time the self-motivated actions of a human alter the behavior of a bird it is some degree of harassment. A more important question is "what is too much harassment?" My rule of thumb when photographing raptors is this: try not to flush the bird. I do sometimes accidentally flush birds, but I never flush them twice -- I'm done photographing that bird and I'm moving on to the next opportunity. I have sometimes, rarely, adjusted these rules according to conditions, mainly dependent on two factors: what is the scientific value of the photograph, and how are other photographers contributing to the total level of harassment for an individual bird? For example, I might flush a bird two or three times if I know that it is a significant observation for the scientific record and a good flight shot is really necessary for the observation to be documented credibly. Conversely, if I know a bird will be pursued by others, I try not to flush it even one time.

-----

I like to allow a given bird to stay in its comfort zone as much as possible. Some birds are oblivious to your presence and will dive on prey right in front of you; others flush from a ¼ mile away. Flushing birds is inevitable, but I never do it to get a shot. I am more careful about flushing birds at the ends of the day (early and late), from an energetic standpoint. I also think the practice of baiting for photography taints the image. When I see a great photo, I want to think it's of a bird just doing its thing, not influenced by artificial factors. But, then we are a part of the world out there, and at times the birds do react to us. We are factors, just as long as we don't keep the birds from doing their thing.

-----

Tossing out mice and rats to raptors is obviously bad because it conditions birds to come to humans for food, and the only ones that would respond to this are obviously starving. However, I often set carrion out for turkey vultures near my house just to watch them. Is that baiting? I think photographers and even researchers should not approach nesting raptors, especially during incubation. I think we have learned about as much as we can by visiting nests. In my younger days I would frequently bump hawks off their hunting perches and follow them pole to pole. I would not even think of doing that today. If there is a rare hawk I want a picture of I wait at least a day before I drive by for another shot. Here in Oklahoma our adult red-tails are JUMPY! Most of the time they bump before you even get close.

-----

Baiting is the number one issue regarding harassment for photography. Too many "professionals" employ the method. Other than that, bumping and chasing birds, and incessant use of pishing and call playback is harassment. We all operate on a moral compass, but get wrapped up in the moment at times and need a reminder. The health of the birds comes first, always.

-----

While I have certainly flushed birds trying to photograph them, I never flush them purposely. And if I accidentally flush them once, I try not to flush them again as it causes the birds to use un-needed energy when they would otherwise be peacefully perched. I take very strong issue with people baiting for raptors/owls, and view photographs obtained by such means to be extremely tainted. The use of mice, or whatever, to bait for raptors concerns me for several reasons. 1) The bird may grow habituated to the presence of humans, never a good thing. 2) The bird could potentially learn that seeing humans means they will get free food. This isn't good either, as these birds need to be able to hunt for themselves. 3) Birds need to learn and hunt naturally. We may think we're providing them a service by giving them a free meal, but we're not. Instead we're inadvertently teaching them bad hunting practices. If they think getting a meal is going to be easy, they're potentially less likely to survive in the future.

-----

I do not agree with pushing the limits on how close you can get. Most people do not seem to know behavioral signs that end up flushing birds. Another thing that I do not like is baiting. A few years ago in Duluth I saw many photographers baiting in Great Gray Owls to the road, and that caused them to fly over close whenever cars approached thinking they were getting fed. I am not sure how many of these owls end up getting hit, but they become trained to hang out close to the road, increasing the chances they will be car-hit. Many photographers along the Mississippi feed shad to the Bald Eagles so they can get shots of them grabbing the fish out of the water...but since the eagles are feeding anyway, why do it? I try to capture shots of birds as naturally as possible and only engage in taking pictures in ways that cause the least possible disturbance to them. If this means I do not get the best shots, or it takes me longer to get the shots I would ideally like, I am fine with that.

-----

At the outset, I certainly won't say I have never flushed a raptor while trying for a photograph. So I am not claiming any moral high ground. But I can say that over many years I have learned a great deal about raptor biology, behavior, their needs, and what they consider to be their space. As an example, I can humbly and proudly say that during last winter's epic Snowy Owl invasion, I photographed at least 19 individual Snowy Owls and I never flushed a single one. One aspect is the notion that "my image" is way more important than the bird's welfare. But yet another is a warped concept of what constitutes a good image. I don't really know how or why an absolute full frame image of a raptor came to be considered as the perfect photo. Wing tips touching the margins is not how you see raptors (ever!), nor is it helpful in teaching what raptors look like in the real world. Many published raptor images remind me of centerfold pornography – airbrushed, unnatural, and unattainable -- as opposed to the real beauty of an average yet magnificent individual in its natural world, be it forest or sky. A final thought is that each and every one of us can look at a given image and easily determine whether the raptor is stressed or not. Really: the images don't lie, no matter how hard some will try to deny or rationalize it. I hope that someday, photo editors will come around to a position that such images are both unnatural and unacceptable.