Mind your birding manners

Hawk nest

A hawk keeps a close eye on its chicks. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Published Aug. 17, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Mind your manners to reduce bird stress.”

By Barb Gorges

I’m sure your parents taught you, as mine did me, that it is impolite to stare.

Does this rule apply, in some way, to birds? After all, the point of birdwatching is to watch them.

Know that whenever you enter a bird’s environment, it can bother a bird. For instance, even when you are on the other side of a window, it may react to your presence.

I recently heard an anecdote about a hawk nest so close to a public road that it was well-known. Birdwatchers regularly showed up to watch and photograph the chicks as they grew.

What these folks apparently missed was that the parents were agitated. The presence of the birdwatchers bothered them. The situation could easily have caused the parents to abandon the chicks. And even though it apparently didn’t, stress on the birds could cause some unintended consequences down the road—just as it does for people.

There is a new field guide that came out this spring, one that offers something a bit different from the rest.

The New Birder’s Field Guide to Birds of North America, by Bill Thompson III, is recommended if you are a casual backyard birdwatcher who wants to know more.

It explains the hobby of birdwatching, why it’s fun, to how to get into it, what to wear to be comfortable, how to adjust binoculars. What follows is a page per species with helpful information for identifying each one.

But one brief chapter bears on this column’s subject, titiled “Birding Manners.”

Some of it pertains to birding with others: keep your voice down, treat others as you’d like to be treated, stay with the group, share the spotting scope, help beginners, pish in moderation.

What is pishing? It’s an attempt to get a better look at a bird by getting it to come out of the vegetation by making a noise that sounds like “pish,” which happens to sound like a bird alarm call. The birds come out to see what’s wrong. Playing recorded bird songs to attract a bird that thinks he’s hearing a rival is another method to bring it out of hiding.

As Thompson asks new birders to use these techniques in moderation, he explains, “We owe it to the birds we love so much to respect their privacy.”

This is the beginning birdwatcher’s version of the American Birding Association’s Birding Code of Ethics. The part that pertains to the nesting hawks situation reads:

“1(b) To avoid stressing birds or exposing them to danger, exercise restraint and caution during observation, photography, sound recording, or filming….

“Keep well back from nests and nesting colonies, roosts, display areas, and important feeding sites. In such sensitive areas, if there is a need for extended observation, photography, filming, or recording, try to use a blind or hide, and take advantage of natural cover.”

If the ABA members, vying to see as many bird species as possible, can restrain themselves, I think the rest of us can as well.

Given today’s optics and cameras, it might have been quite possible to observe the activity in the hawk nest from a less intimidating distance, since building a blind on the side of a public road probably isn’t feasible. Contacting the landowner for permission to erect a temporary blind might have been a solution.

But on the other hand, if we are observing the hawks for our own enjoyment and not as a part of scientific study, two minutes from inside our car would be quite enough, rather than hour after hour, day after day. Try to make part of your enjoyment of birds knowing that your actions haven’t endangered or distressed them.

There is so much interesting bird behavior to watch unobserved by the birds if you walk carefully and stop and stand still often, being the proverbial fly on the wall. If you don’t make noise or make sudden movements, birds in the bushes will continue to flit about feeding. If you sit as still as a rock at the shore, the shorebirds may pass close by.

And should a bird look you in the eye, acknowledge it as you would a person, with a nod.

And then look away, so it can continue with its important business of living.

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