There have been many cases where well-intentioned people, eager for a close encounter with a rare bird, have themselves “flocked” to a site in large numbers, resulting in constant harassment of the animal. One example is a great gray owl, a rare visitor from the far north, which showed up in a residential area in central Madison. Hundreds of people came to see and photograph the bird, and it was chased back and forth constantly to the point that there were pleas to give the bird some space, so it wouldn’t become too stressed.
Unfortunately, birds which are far out of their normal ranges may already be under considerable stress because they have traveled far beyond normal due to a lack of food in their home range. Many of these birds may not survive, even if not harassed.
Most of us appreciate wild birds and don’t wish to harm them. The Wisconsin Society for Ornithology and other groups have generated guidelines for the ethical viewing of birds (which of course applies to other wildlife as well). This code of ethics includes the following:
- When birding, we should act in ways that do not endanger the welfare of birds and other wildlife. We should:
- Observe and photograph birds without disturbing them in significant ways;
- Avoid chasing or repeatedly flushing them
- Limit use of recordings and similar methods of attracting birds;
- Keep an appropriate distance from nests and nesting colonies
- Refrain from handling birds or eggs (except for recognized research activities);
- Act in ways the minimize adverse effects to the environment;
- Stay on existing roads, leave habitats in as good or better condition as we find them;
- Respect the rights of others;
- Obtain permission to enter private property, follow posted rules on public and private lands, observe all laws and regulations, etc.
Birders in groups should act in consideration of the group’s interest, not just our own, support the leader of the group, limit group size so as not to overly disturb birds and their habitats.
These are nothing more than simple common-sense principles, but incidents with birds encounter show that they bear repeating. Like the ethical hunter who passes on a shot that is not clean, sometimes wildlife watchers have to forego a better look at an animal for its own good. Along with taking care of our natural areas, being mindful of our interactions with wildlife and respecting animals not only helps them to survive but makes us better people and results in a better community overall.