Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Birder Ethics and Etiquette

I'm in a very bad mood today. Yesterday something happened that I had feared would happen for about a week.

Last week a Snowy Owl was seen in southeastern Ohio, and the birding community in the area was hugely excited, naturally so.

While Snowys aren't really rare, they are unusual to find this far south, and when they are it's called an irruption. Irruptions of birds are when they're found outside of their normal range. When there is an irruption of Snowys, it typically is linked to the availability of their usual prey, lemmings.

When the lemming population booms, adult Snowy Owls will raise more young. That means more juvenile birds competing for food and territory when winter arrives. Which leads to them ranging further south than they normally do, and some lucky birders getting to see them who normally would not.

As well, being a huge, gorgeous raptor, these birds have major eye appeal, and that's not even taking into account the popularity of Hedwig, the owl from the Harry Potter series.

So it's natural that people are excited when a Snowy is spotted locally, and birders will "twitch" to see the rarity. Twitching means dedicated birders will travel quite a distance to see the bird which is out of its normal range. Often distance, money, and time are no object to the Twitcher, with the goal being to a) add the bird to a Life List, and b) take a fabulous photo (which you can then post online and earn the accolades of all your friends.)

I have been interested in birds since I was a young child. I have early memories of lying on the floor of the living room of my childhood home, listening as my mother played records of bird songs so that she could learn to identify birds by their songs alone. My mother was an avid birder ever since I can remember, and she and I both come from a long line of conservationists.

As well, my grandfather was known for his love of owls, (he had one as a youth), so much so that over the years, all anyone gave him were owl-themed gifts, and he even named his country cottage Owl House.

So the owl as a genus is near and dear to my heart, even more so than other birds. And when I heard there was a Snowy in SE Ohio, the message filled me with dread rather than joy.

Why? Because I knew that Twitchers would be coming from near and far to photograph the bird and view it. I knew that despite the best efforts of responsible birders, the bird would likely be harassed. You see, these birds who are far out of their normal range are usually under or malnourished, and need to be left alone so that they can hunt in peace. Every time the bird flies it's using energy that could be saved, and over time this can lead to illness and even death.

This is not an unknown problem, especially among birders. I mean, even the Huffington Post did an article about this just six days ago. So my fears are far from unjustified.

Did I go see the bird (which would have been a lifer for me)? No. Did I go to photograph it (I am a professional photographer, among other things.) No. Why? Because I felt my very presence would have the potential to harm the bird. In science, the term Observer Effect refers to changes that the act of observation will make on a phenomenon being observed. And so I decided not to go join the crowds who were observing the bird, despite wanting to see it very badly.

I also took one further step. I am the founder and an Admin of the Kentucky Birders group on Facebook. As such I posted the link to the article above in the group, and told members that I did not want posts giving the location of Snowy Owls in the group, as I didn't want to add to the throngs already doing so in other Facebook groups. And I didn't want photos being posted in a competition of sorts, to see who could get the best close-up shot of the bird.

Yesterday, to my extreme dismay, what I and others feared came to pass. The owl was killed by a car. Now, no one can say for sure that it was killed because of all the people who were watching it day after day. It may just have been a young, dumb bird which roosted and flew about in a dangerous place. That's Nature, and I get that. But we do also know that on Sunday there were people who were harassing the bird, getting too close, and ignoring other birders who pleaded with them to stop.

Is one bird dead really a big deal in the overall scheme of things in the world today? Of course not. But the intense desire of humans to capture a trophy (photo) and bragging rights of seeing a "lifer" does disturb me. There was quite a lot of discussion online about it last night, and I finally wound up leaving one group because my point of view wasn't overly popular, and I didn't feel like having to defend myself. I hope that if nothing else, I was able to get the Admins of that group to consider their policies about allowing posts and photos of this type.

I don't really know what the answers are. Do I think everyone should have an opportunity to see a magnificent bird outside of its usual range? I will answer with a qualified yes, because clearly we can't all control the environment, and ultimately the bird pays the price when things go wrong. People can post teary emoticons all they'd like, but that doesn't bring the bird back.

Perhaps all birders, new and experienced, need to think long and hard about their ethics and behavior, and consider Cornell University's eBird's Guidelines For Reporting Sensitive Species. It's what I follow, and I encourage other birders to do the same. I think we should all consider whether adding a life bird to our list is worth endangering the bird itself's life. I know I don't think so.