Ethical Bird Photography: Best Practices for Protecting their Natural Habitat
Ethical bird photography tips aren’t as obvious as they may seem. Few photographers know how to protect birds’ habitats while engaging in bird photography—learn more about best practices.
Bird photography is very popular; however, not everyone makes sure to practice ethical bird photography and to protect natural bird habitats. This is something we as mindful wildlife appreciators and photographers must do if we want to continue to engage in bird photography. Ethical bird photography tips aren’t as obvious as they may seem, and few photographers know how to protect birds’ habitats while engaging in bird photography. From photographing at an appropriate distance with the right bird photography lens to not taking your 4WD on your bird photography trip, here are some of the best practices for ethical bird photography and protecting their natural habitat:
Ethical Bird Photography Tips:
- Don’t Go Too Close
- No Flushing
- Learn to Read Bird Body Language
- Check Before Feeding Birds
How to Protect Birds’ Habitats:
- Walk Don’t Drive
- Protect Sensitive Habitats
- Don’t Share Locations
- Donate to Causes That Protect Birds in Habitat
- Buy Bird Photography Prints from Ethical Sources
We will also look at Melissa Groo from Untamed Photographer, a seasoned wildlife photographer and expert in ethics in wildlife photography who co-wrote Audubon’s “Guide to Ethical Bird Photography and Videography,” which has become the gold standard in the photography community for practical ethical guidelines.
Ethical Bird Photography Tips
First, let’s look at some ethical bird photography tips to protect and photograph birds in their natural habitat responsibly.
Don’t Go Too Close
On a basic level, going too close to a bird might startle it—thereby disturbing it and causing it to waste much needed energy. However, going too close to birds can have other consequences, such as destroying their habitat and disrupting them when they are mating or nesting.
Breeding season (because of the spectacular plumage) and nesting (because of the cute chicks) are considered by many to be the best times for bird photography. However, these are both particularly bad times to disturb birds. Photographing and getting too close to birds in the breeding season can disrupt mating, often putting already threatened or endangered species under even more risk. The same is true for nesting, though the situation may be even more tragic because birds that are consistently bothered during nesting may abandon their nests and chicks. For more information on why you need to be careful taking photos of nests, check out Melissa Groo from Untamed Photographer’s do’s and don’ts of nest photography.
To avoid getting too close to birds, use a telephoto lens, which is the best lens for bird photography anyway (and the best camera for bird photography that you can buy). The right bird photography settings can also help you capture a good image from far away.
For some inspiration, read about how Melissa Groo photographs birds in the compelling stories behind her limited-edition pieces “Hidden Treasure'' and “In It Together.” Pay attention to how Melissa is always concerned about not disturbing the birds. For example, in “In it Together,” she says, “I managed to position myself with an unobstructed view of them and took a few shots with a telephoto lens, keeping my distance so I wouldn't disturb them.”
Another way to disturb birds is by “flushing” them, which means making them fly away so that you can take a photo of them. As mentioned above, disturbing birds has a host of bad consequences for them, so it’s even worse if you’re doing it on purpose.
Learn to Read Bird Body Language
How do you know you’re going too close or disturbing a bird? It will begin to show signs of anxiety. Signs of anxiety or annoyance in a bird include:
- Tail fanning: A sign of aggression and displeasure.
- Crouching: A crouching bird with fluffed feathers and fanned tail feathers is defensive and afraid.
- Beak clicking: Beak clicking shows that a bird is feeling threatened.
- Vocalizing with alarm calls.
- Flying directly at the photographer: This is a behavior often exhibited by birds like terns or raptors, which are trying to scare you away from their nest.
All of these behaviors are signs that you and your bird photography lens should back off (therefore it’s useful to read as much as you can about reading bird body language).
Check Before Feeding Birds
Before feeding birds for photography, it’s important to check when it’s okay to do so. It’s not okay to feed endangered birds or to feed birds inappropriate or human food (e.g. feeding ducks bread), and there is a difference between feeding wild birds in their habitat, and birds that you might find in your garden.
How To Protect Birds’ Habitats
We’ve already mentioned the danger of bird habitat destruction, which is a big issue in bird photography. So here’s some bird photography tips and general tips for protecting birds in habitat:
Walk, Don’t Drive
One cause of habitat destruction in bird photography (and wildlife photography in general) is driving off-road in bird habitats, whether it’s on a beach or in a field. As you can imagine, it’s incredibly destructive—especially in relation to natural habitats that are already sensitive or fragile. In order to best follow this rule, your bird photography camera should be light enough to allow you to walk into fragile habitat on marked paths.
Respect Sensitive Habitats
One of the reasons not to go too close to birds is to protect sensitive natural habitats, such as nesting sites, for which interference is particularly harmful. These sites often have signs that announce protected areas. Unfortunately, some bird photographers ignore these signs in order to get the best photograph, which makes it all the more important that the rest of us follow best practices that keep the safety of the nesting areas foremost in mind.
Consider following the approach of Melissa Groo, who when photographing Least terns in her limited-edition piece “Hidden Treasure,” didn’t enter or go near the cordoned off habitat to get close up to the birds and their chicks, but “settled… outside the rope, quickly sitting down to be less threatening.”
Don’t Share Locations
Many photos have the location and time embedded. This is a problem if you share bird photography photos online, as it can lead to photographers flocking to the location. This not only disturbs the birds (which may be endangered) but ruins their natural habitat due to photographers trampling over it. Either remove the location from the photo or consider waiting a few weeks or months before posting it.
Donate to Causes That Protect Birds in Habitat
One way you can help protect birds’ natural habitats and the birds themselves is to donate to charities that support bird conservation and research. There are plenty of charities and organizations that are doing important work in bird conservation, both bird focused ones (such as the Owl Research Institute or The Crane Trust) and other conservation and environmental charities that help birds (like the Belize Wildlife & Referral Clinic or Friends for Conservation and Development). You can donate to these organizations directly or by buying a print like “Macaws in Flight” by Tony Rath from Untamed Photographer.
Buy Bird Photography Prints from Ethical Sources
As mentioned above, unethical bird photography practices that don’t respect birds in habitat are common. This is why it’s important to buy prints from ethical bird photographers if you are thinking of purchasing a bird photography print. All of the photographers at Untamed Photographer take wildlife and bird photography ethics very seriously and never engage in baiting or flushing, which makes Untamed Photographer a great place to buy from to support ethical bird photography.
If you adhere to these ethical bird photography tips, you should be able to practice bird photography without harming birds or their sensitive environments. Ethical bird photography and protecting birds in habitat can be simple, and following these best practices ensures that the birds will still be here to photograph and enjoy in the future. You can even do more to help the birds by donating to a charity or buying a bird photography print from Untamed Photographer.
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