The Ethical Bird Photographer

Some commonsense guidelines can help you get the shots you want while protecting the birds you love.

All bird photographers want that perfect shot, and sometimes they’ll go to great lengths to get it (read our magazine's feature on the subject). The problem comes when that pursuit jeopardizes the welfare and safety of the birds themselves.

At Audubon we try hard to avoid using bird photos that were taken in an unethical way. While that might sound easy, it’s often a challenge to distinguish a photo that’s been taken responsibly from one that hasn’t.

The guiding principle: Place the welfare and safety of the birds and their habitats above all else and avoid disturbing them in any way. Here are some tips to to help you do that.

  • Carefully watch the bird’s behavior. You will quickly learn to recognize signs of nervousness, and when you see those signs, you should slowly back off.  A long lens will often get you that great shot without getting close to your subject.
  • Never flush birds (that is, disturb them and make them fly)—either your subject or other birds near your subject. In breeding season, it can interfere with reproduction. In winter, it can cause birds to use up precious internal resources.
  • Be aware of habitat, and avoid trampling sensitive ground cover or breaking branches. Sometimes damage to habitat can do more long-term harm than disturbance of the birds themselves.
  • Be particularly careful when photographing nests. Be sure not to keep the parents away from the nest during incubation or when they’re feeding their chicks. A bird’s greatest defense against nest predation is camouflage, so never remove anything near the nest in an effort to get a better shot.
  • Pay attention to rules about keeping your distance. If, for instance, a sign says to stay back 200 feet from a rookery, stay back 200 feet. Regulations like that are not arbitrary; they were written for a reason.