The Dangers of Distracting Birds

Even birders and photographers with the best intentions can accidentally cause harm. Here are some tips to keep birds safe.

As a field ornithologist and casual birder, I’ve seen my fair share of precarious predator-prey situations. It’s natural. But what isn’t natural is the Human Factor: the dangers we bring anytime we command a bird’s attention in the wild.

One encounter, from a decade ago, still lingers in my memory. It was my role in the near death of an endangered crane.

My wife and I were on our honeymoon in the Eastern Cape region of South Africa—not far from where Nelson Mandela was born—when we spied a small flock of Grey Crowned-Cranes from our car. The stunning, three-foot-tall birds were foraging about 50 meters off the side of the road. Noticing a straggler close by, we slowed the vehicle to a stop for a better look. The single crane, nervous from the sudden attention, stopped pecking at the grass and stared back.

The crane saw the dog before I did. The elegant creature suddenly turned into a thrashing mass of legs and wings as it struggled to get airborne—not a simple feat for a bird this large. The bolting black dog, most likely a stray, took advantage of the bird’s redirected focus. It was a good gamble: The carnivore got within a few feet of the crane before the bird sailed off.

There are other examples of how my presence has risked a bird’s life. Once on the outskirts of Anchorage, Alaska, I scoped out a small flock of Common Redpolls as they watched me cautiously. A Northern Shrike capitalized on this diversion to sweep in and almost catch one. In another, more fatal case, a Tiger Shrike in the Russian Far East watched me coolly from a low rise as I approached for a closer look. Unbeknownst to me, on the other side of the hill, a Russian ornithologist was also creeping in. He used my distraction to his advantage, and made the bird a permanent part of a museum collection.

The Human Factor is not a new phenomenon; many birders have similar stories. In fact, predators have probably been taking advantage of humans since birding became mainstream. In 1916, Edward Forbush, an ornithologist and founder of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, noted that foxes sometimes trail photographers searching for bird nests—and then raid those nests once the people move on. 

So, how do we keep from being part of the threat?

First, read and understand the American Birding Association’s Code of Birding Ethics, which states upfront that birders should “avoid stressing birds or exposing them to danger.” It’s important to take a measured look at our surroundings anytime we choose to engage a bird’s attention, and try to respect the subject’s space. This is especially true when our targets are rare or endangered.

Next, if you find a nest, don’t mess with it; some birds go to extreme lengths to conceal their young. No need to risk nest abandonment, or leave a trail for a fox by moving in for a closer look. Flushing a bird out of its nest will keep it from protecting and caring for its young.

Also, pay attention to alarm calls. Those sharp piks might tip you off to bird’s presence, but it’s also a clue that the animal is feeling stressed out and threatened. Back away and let it calm down before you continue to observe.

Speaking of calls, only use audio to lure a bird when it's essential. During breeding season when birds are being territorial, they might shift their focus to fend off the “competitor” that's making the call, lowering their defenses against real predators. Try not to play recordings for prolonged amounts of time, and don’t direct them at endangered or threatened species (in the United States it’s illegal to disturb them). The Sibley guidelines are a good resource for learning more about when audio is least disruptive.

Predicting threats can be tricky, especially when we can’t see them ourselves. Danger can come in the form of a dog resting among the roadside reeds, a shrike obscured by a wall of willow branches, or even an armed ornithologist lurking among the rose hips. In the case of the Grey Crowned-Crane, I probably could have assessed the scene better: A lone, endangered, gawky bird poking out of a field comes with a higher risk factor. In the end, the best thing you can offer is an extra set of eyes for both you and the birds. If you're vigilant and mindful, you're less likely to cause harm. 

A condensed version of this story first appeared on Wild View, a Wildlife Conservation Society photo blog.