Birdwatching Etiquette

When birdwatching, the welfare of the bird, the environment, and other people should be top priorities. A birdwatcher (or photographer) should always be aware of the impacts their observation is having on these three components.

Approaching Birds

Birds fight for their lives every day, using their limited energy stores to forage for food, breed, and migrate. Flushing a bird (causing it to fly away from a concealed area or perch) may seem like no big deal to some but it can have a negative impact on the bird, especially if it happens continuously. Birds simply cannot afford to waste finite energy, on top of that, flushing a bird may expose it to potential predators. This is especially true for rare or endangered species and day-roosting owls.  

Sometimes flushing a bird is accidental but take care to avoid doing it whenever possible – this doesn’t mean you can’t attempt to move closer to a bird in order to get better view or photo, it just means you have to be more strategic and thoughtful about it. An emphasis should be placed on slow movements and quietness. As you quietly inch closer you are letting the bird grow accustomed to your non-threatening presence, however if the bird begins to show signs of agitation (freezes up, stares at you, adjusts wings and feet) you should stop, if it calms down you can try moving a bit closer. There is no set rule on how close you should come in contact with a wild bird, as it often depends on the species and situation but use common sense and remember to prioritize the bird’s welfare.

Thoughtfully approaching a bird is especially important when you are not the only person observing or photographing the bird. You don’t want to flush away a bird and ruin the experience for an entire group of people. If someone is photographing a bird ahead of you, never move beyond that person without at least waiting an appropriate amount of time for them to get their view or picture, in most cases this person will finish up quickly and let you pass, if the person doesn’t notice you, politely (and quietly) inform them of your intentions. Consider though that this person may be stopped in this spot because they don’t feel comfortable moving closer to the bird (and in that case, maybe you shouldn’t either). Also, if you are birdwatching as part of a group – move as a group – approaching a bird from all different directions will make it feel more threatened.

Bird Recordings

When birds sing and call they do so for serious reasons – to claim territories, attract mates, communicate about food and danger. Using recordings to attract birds leads to confusion and distraction, while also exposing them to predators. Recordings should not be played to attract birds.

Bird Nests

If a bird is tending (brooding, feeding) to their nestlings, do all you can not to disturb it – if you flush the parent bird, the time it is away from the nest can seriously endanger the desperate life that lies inside of it. In some cases, the parents may even abandon a nest if they feel like it has been tampered with. Don’t disturb active bird nests by getting too close or by touching them, observe and photograph from a distance.

Property Rights

Birds show up in random places, at random times but always respect property rights when in pursuit of them. Never trespass, get permission before entering private or restricted property.

Backyard Birding

The majority of birdwatchers are backyard birders – they should keep bird feeders and birdbaths clean and stocked with fresh feed and water in order to help birds avoid disease. They should also protect birds from predators like cats.

Be Courteous

Assume that someone with poor birdwatching etiquette isn’t trying to annoy you or the birds on purpose – they simply aren’t aware of the impact their disturbance is causing. If you feel the need to inform an uniformed birdwatcher of their disturbance – be polite; give advice rather than a scolding. Also, if you have an opportunity to help an inexperienced birder (with an ID, or bird hotspot location), strongly consider taking it – many of today’s expert birdwatchers benefited from help along the way. Be respectful to non-birders as well, don't block trail paths and always thank those who have stopped to let you observe birds.

Respect the Environment/DON’T LITTER

Speaks for itself.

Some Birdwatching Tips

  • Know how to identify trees – so you know where to look when someone says, “there is a Yellow-Billed Cuckoo in the Black Willow.” Birds are attracted to specific trees, so being able to identify them will be very helpful in finding birds.
  • Learn bird calls and songs
  • Wear dark, earthy colors
  • If birding in a new area – bring a map
  • Never forget binoculars, camera/SD Card, and usually a hat
  • Plan for protection against pesty bugs - especially in summer
  • Check weather ahead of time.


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