I believe jerks make up a much smaller percentage of birders than people in the rest of the world. There are a ton of jerks in the world, though, so that means there are still a few in birding.
Some jerks are just jerks and can’t be helped. We all know someone like that. But other jerks might not know they’re jerks or realize that their behavior is jerky behavior. If you’re a new birder and don’t have a mentor or don’t know any other birders, as was the case with me when I started, it’s not your fault if you don’t know how to act.
Learning the birds is easy—there are field guides for that. Learning how not to be a jerk is tougher, though there are sources. The most helpful document—the Magna Carta for how not to be a birding jerk—is the American Birding Association’s Principles of Birding Ethics. The ABA’s principles are written in formal semi-legalese, but us regular folks can understand it better if you just put the words “Don’t be a jerk:” before each point. For example, Principle 1(d) becomes: “Don’t be a jerk: Stay on roads, trails, and paths where they exist; otherwise keep habitat disturbance to a minimum.” Principle 2(a) becomes: “Don’t be a jerk: Do not enter private property without the owner's explicit permission.”
Every birder should follow the ABA’s Principles of Birding Ethics to the letter. But not everything’s covered in there, or at least not explicitly. Allow me to shed light on a few more jerky behaviors to help you keep peace in the birding world.
Don’t be a jerk: Be nice to other birders. Birding is unusual in that you don't often run into other birders, even in well-covered areas. Even where I live in Washington, D.C. I rarely see other parties of birders unless there’s a stakeout or something. When you do run into one, however, be nice.
I remember the first time I ever saw another birder. I was out in southern Maine and had just hiked to a famous seawatching spot. There he was, scanning out over the horizon. Finally, I thought, I could ask someone what all these birds were! I could ask him where I should go! I felt like a castaway on a deserted island who finally found another person. How do you make fire? How did you make that loincloth? Instead, when I reached him, he just mumbled a quick “hey” and packed up and left. Maybe I had spooked him with my obvious eagerness, but I was crushed.
Maybe that birder had places to be and birds to see, but it really irked me that he wouldn’t stop to say a quick hello to the only other birder for miles. These kinds of interactions are not just common courtesy (shouldn’t that be enough!) but are opportunities to swap info on nearby birds and locations. Please, next time you see another birder out on the trail, say hello.
Don’t be a jerk: Report your sightings. It might be easy to bird without seeing other birders, but that doesn’t mean birders aren’t connected. In fact, most of the times I go out I am relying on the work of all the other birders in my area. I know where to chase a rarity because another birder has reported it to a local listserv. I know what to expect at a certain hotspot because other birders have built up a record of sightings on eBird. I am helped every time out by hundreds of birders I’ve never met.
However, these incredible networks are only helpful when birders use them, and some birders don’t.
Some birders only share sightings with their friends. Some birders just can’t be bothered with signing up for the listserv. I dunno, maybe I shouldn't judge people who just want to keep to themselves, but if you rely on eBird and listservs to get information about what birds are around, I think you have an obligation to put information back into those systems to help others out there.
Once you become a more experienced birder it can be easy to forgot how much newer birders rely on listservs for their information. Experienced birders mostly know the spots they want to go and when, really only monitoring eBird and the listservs for reports of rarities. Newer birders don’t know where to go or when to be there, so even reports of common birds at certain locations are helpful to learn about the area. I am guilty of not reporting birding trips to my local listserv unless I find something really noteworthy, but I’m working on it.
Don’t be a jerk: Behave at stakeouts. There are the infrequent meetings with other birders on a trail, and then there are stakeouts—groups of birders who come together at the site of a reported rarity.
Tensions can run a little high at stakeouts, especially if the reported bird hasn’t shown up yet. It can feel awkward, too, depending on where you are. I’ll never forget the looks I got from suburban Maryland commuters leaving their houses in the morning to the sight of 40 birders cramped into a front lawn hoping an Anna’s Hummingbird would return (it didn’t). So, between the awkwardness and the anticipation, people can be a little on edge.
The situation is better if everyone behaves themselves. That is, no one is a jerk. Being a jerk at a bird stakeout can mean a couple things. It sounds petty, but don’t talk too much. No one wants to hear you yakking away when we’re all quietly looking for this bird. Besides, if you’re yakking, it means you’re not helping look. Be cool.
Don’t start playing a tape of the bird you’re looking for; it’ll just confuse or irk other birders and probably isn’t good for the target bird either. Don’t cross into private property to get a better look, and don’t park illegally. Generally, just be extra aware of where you are and the people around you.
If some of this seems nitpicky, it’s because the vast majority of birders are not jerks at all. We’re great, and helpful, and courteous. So keep these lessons and the ABA’s Principles of Birding Ethics in mind, and you’ll fit right in.