Can’t Photographers and Birders Just Get Along?

The rivalry needs to stop—for the good of the birds.

Don’t bother asking me if I’m more of a birder or a photographer. I’ll just lie and tell you I find both topics “kind of boring.” It’s my clever smokescreen for completely sidestepping the birder/photographer rivalry. I prefer to identify as bird-activity neutral.

I came to love both birds and cameras in a roundabout way, so I’ve always felt like something of a misfit. I got my start practicing the fine art of being a beach bum, taking pictures just to see the beaches I love in more detail, and studying the birds because they lived on those beaches and I was jealous of them. Back then, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a birder and had never met a wildlife photographer. But that all changed in the winter of 2013 when 14 Snowy Owls showed up on my beach and scores of birders and photographers followed.

Beach bumming is a lonely business, so I spent much of that winter giving them rides out to the owls in my Jeep. I learned so much from so many smart people during those rides. But more than anything, I discovered just how much birders and photographers detest one another, and how much I admire them both. I kept my mouth shut as each launched into a tirade about the other’s despicable behavior and how it leads to the demise of birds. All of my newfound friends were insulting my other newfound friends. I felt like I had to choose a side. 

While listening to so many rants that winter, there were a few things that kept catching my attention. The first was that at the heart of the rivalry, these groups did not fundamentally respect the value of each other’s activities. The second was that they did not properly account for the very different ethical implications of those activities. The third was that the failure to resolve those first two things is silly and bad for the birds.

A few years later, after continually deeper immersion into bird culture, I’m more convinced than ever we should put this rivalry to bed so we can regroup, fix more problems, have more fun, and help more birds.

Let’s Just Say We’re Both Valuable And Leave It At That

Common refrains in the rivalry are such gems as “that birder is trespassing just to check a bird off a list” or “those photographers are terrifying that bird just to get more likes on Facebook.” It’s time to stop disparaging two of the world’s finest activities with simple generalizations that misrepresent the value of both activities and the motivations of the good people pursuing them. That both birding and photography are incalculably valuable to the world is a given.

Beneath many an angry rant is a weak foundation that lulls us into thinking “everything would be better if only [birders/photographers] would stop doing their activity.” The truth is everything would be worse. Not only are bird observation and bird photography magnificently worthwhile in their own right, they round each other out and create one of the most powerful citizen science groups on the planet.

But Let’s Recognize Our Differences Too

If we can agree that both activities are valuable, we can then get to the true heart of the rivalry: the simple reality that the ethical risks and requirements of birding and photography are completely different.

Birders have always had the ethical upper hand, thanks to the fact that birding allows them to stay farther away from a subject. For birders with good optics, healthy distance risks no disruption to the birds and leads to higher-quality observation. The wide perspective also allows birders to see more of what is happening in the field. This often puts them in the unfortunate position of policing others.

Photographers are at a relative disadvantage. Even the $10,000, state-of-the-art, professional long lenses available today don't have the technical ability to keep photographers out of the risk zone. They must get closer to birds and stay with them longer, and so the ethical burden is much greater. This often puts them in the unfortunate position of being more likely to do something harmful.

These differences sound comically obvious, yet they too often are overlooked. Photographers accuse birders of being uptight and bossy, ignoring the reality that many birders are more likely to witness bad behavior. Honest photographers who want to master their craft should welcome birders watching from a distance. They have the better vantage point.

Birders on the other hand are too quick to say photographers don’t need to approach wild animals at all. But those birders don’t understand the subtleties and technical requirements of photography. They can also be quick to underestimate just how valuable photography is to the future of birds and how close you can actually get without disturbing them.

There’s More Power in Joining Forces

Birders and photographers are like two departments of a larger company. That company’s job is to squash ignorance and apathy as they relate to birds and the wild places they live. By focusing on that common mission, we can team up and create a better internal culture to squash problems in our own workplace—ones like trespassing, disturbance, and carelessness. 

Every photographer who is serious about helping wildlife could benefit by spending more time with birders. Photographers can learn a lot by stepping back and observing subjects from afar. And every birder who is serious about helping wildlife should join a photographer on a close approach and a long sit with a bird.

With a better understanding of the value of each other’s activities, and the unique risks and responsibilities of each, we can start helping each other to help more birds.

And now I have to go. My inbox is already filling up with emails from every birder I know saying this article was too soft on photographers, and every photographer arguing it was too soft on birders.

Jim Verhagen is a self-described beach bum with a camera from Long Beach Island, New Jersey. He strongly believes that coastal wildlife is the undervalued crown jewel of the Jersey Shore and works tirelessly to get more people to agree with him.