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Basic Birding Ethics

Included in any basic code of bird watching ethics is a respect of the rights of landowners. Don’t enter private property without the owner's permission. photo by PAUL NICHOLSON

Terms of engagement for bird watching make sense.

Most bird enthusiasts know intuitively what is good for the birds and what isn’t, and most would recognize that the welfare of our birds trumps our shared interest in them.

That said, many birding organizations have created codes of ethics for the bird watcher and bird photographer communities. Common elements inevitably include promoting a respect for birds and other wildlife, habitat, the environment, and other birders.

Be mindful of the fact that most birds will consider a person who is too close to it or its nest as a threat. We want to minimize distress such as this. It’s best to keep a respectful distance. That’s where the binoculars come in handy.

Birds will often let us know if we are getting too close. They may fly off, raise a crest, sound an alarm call, attack us, or even do a display. While walking along a marsh trail I have unwittingly come too close to a Red-winged Blackbird nest, and the aerial attack from the parent let me know that I should leave the area immediately. Similarly, while birding along a rural road, in May or June I might hear a Killdeer screaming and then see it distracting me away from a nest with a “broken wing” display. Plainly, the bird is distressed.

Is there an exception to this rule? What about those Black-capped Chickadees at the Fanshawe Conservation Area that will fly right to your hand for some sunflower seeds? It’s fun to offer a handful of seed, but in every case, we want to be respectful of our feathered friends. The starting point is always to assume a bird might be stressed.

Birds can only thrive if the specific habitats that support them are undisturbed. For this reason, it is important to stay on pathways, roads, and trails. If people are randomly traipsing through fields and wooded areas, habitat will be degraded.

Not surprisingly, there are some contentious elements in birding communities. One such aspect is the use of pishing or recorded playback of bird vocalizations in order to provoke a bird into sight. Some birders never take these actions. Others use playback injudiciously. Generally, this behaviour by birders is situational. Among nesting species or among bird species at risk, this behaviour is frowned on. Good sense is called for.

On this theme, the Ontario Field Ornithologists’ code of ethics says “Do not deliberately flush birds. Limit the use of playbacks or other methods of attracting birds. Never use such methods in heavily birded areas, or for attracting any species that is Endangered, Threatened or of Special Concern, or is rare in your local area.”

If you are a birder who shares sightings, for example on the eBird platform, give thought to how you post some sightings. After evaluating the possibility of disturbing a particular bird or its environment, it might make sense to suppress some information, delay the posting, or not post.

It was not long after a Northern Hawk Owl was harassed by observers and photographers in Schomberg, Ontario in late 2019 that the ONTBIRDS bird alert service decided that they would no longer publish any owl sightings.

An obvious part of any code of bird-watching ethics is to respect private property. Similarly, make yourself aware of local rules and bylaws and follow them.

When birding, be respectful of other people’s birding experiences as well. We will generate goodwill if we are quiet in a birding hotspot or if we share knowledge with new birders or if we simply respect the activities of non-birders participating in outdoor activities.

While not exactly captured in any birder’s code, the old saw “Take only pictures and leave only footprints.” is a good one to keep in mind.

The Ontario Field Ornithologists have published their code of ethics for more than a quarter-century. It is posted on the organization’s website. Birds Canada endorses and shares the American Birding Association’s code of ethics at

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