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The Beginners Guide to Backyard Birding: Practice Good Ethics & Show Empathy to Your Backyard Birds

An American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) sits on a small twig
Winter Goldfinch

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A small Pine Siskin (Spinus pinus) perches on a dead log.
Pine Siskin

We can’t discuss backyard birding without examining the very important subjects of ethics and empathy. I’ll be honest with you. I’ve been dreading writing this blog post. I’m not perfect. I wish I could tell you that I have never done anything unethical to capture an image, but I can’t. But I can tell you that as I grow as a wildlife photographer (and as a human being), I have become more aware of the ethics of wildlife photography and learned to be more empathetic. Obviously, I am not an expert on this subject and these are just my opinions. This is a controversial topic and has been interpreted in many different ways. You must do your research and form your own opinions.

In this blog post, we will look into a code of conduct and address how empathy should affect the way you approach every living creature that visits your backyard. I will discuss both ethics and empathy in a minute, but first, read the following quote. If you take anything away from this blog series, this is it.

“Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time. “

― Aliyyah Eniath

Read it again, then memorize it, write it on an index card and keep it in your camera bag or keep a copy with your binoculars. Put a copy by your door so you see it every time you go outside. This statement alone should embody how we think EVERY TIME we step out our door. So, let's get to it!

Let’s talk ethics first. Ethics is simply defined as a system of moral principles. The topic of ethics in wildlife photography is all over the internet and especially on social media. I am a firm believer that as birders, we should also follow this fairly basic code of conduct.

The following ethics guide is used by many of the major photography competitions and is something you should consider as the foundation of your approach as a backyard birder. Not all of them will apply to backyard birding, but they are still good to know.

#1 Do Not Disturb: Have you ever tried to capture that inflight image and whistled at your subject to get them to fly? Unfortunately, I have! No big deal, right? Think again! Spooking an animal by whistling, shouting, or throwing objects toward it can have far more consequences than we realize. Consider this. You might be scaring a parent bird away from a hidden nest or maybe spooked a bobcat’s first meal in days. And it is not just the animals that you can disturb. We’ve all been there. Hearing that elusive bird, your bucket list bird, and then someone starts yelling nearby and scares off your subject. You could literally cry! Do Not Disturb should apply to wildlife and fellow nature enthusiasts.

#2 Respect the Law: Laws that protect wildlife are there for a reason. Obey them.

#3 Be Careful with Recorded Calls: The use of recorded bird songs and calls can be disruptive to the natural behavior of birds. Some experts say that you should never use recorded songs. The belief is that they cause birds or animals to behave differently than normal, which makes it unethical. Whatever your views are, you should never use recorded calls during the breeding season. This could interfere with their normal mating behavior. For example, if a male Cardinal responds to a call, he’s spending time and energy that he needs to be using to search for his mating partner. See my point?

#4 Do Not Use Live Bait: The fact that this needs to be addressed is deeply disturbing to me. We should never, ever sacrifice the life of a living animal for the sake of a picture. Enough said on that!

#5 Do Not Interfere with Nests: I might step on some toes with this one. Sorry, it needs to be said. Never disturb the habitat around a nest. Anytime you remove or reposition a branch for a picture to get a better view of a nest, you are interfering. Maybe that branch is protecting the nest from the wind or keeping it out of sight from predators. You know exactly what I am talking about. We’ve all seen them posted on social media. Those images look straight down on a nest of baby birds or the ones where the top of a birdhouse has been removed to photograph the chicks. To me, and many others, these are troubling photos that show blatant disregard for the well-being of the birds. In my opinion, this is, without a doubt, unethical. Here is a great article by Melissa Groo that goes deeper into this subject. Do’s and Don’ts of Nest Photography.

#6 Look Out for Signs of Distress: If you are photographing or viewing an animal and it appears to be distressed, STOP! A perfect example. You spot a mockingbird in a tree and decide to move closer to get a better look. If it begins to divebomb you and squawk loudly, most likely you are near a nest and causing distress. Move away! My best advice is to do research. Know your subjects. Before you approach an animal, it is important to learn its habits, such as nesting and breeding seasons, foraging behaviors, need for space, and signs of stress. These vary by species. Alarm calls, wide eyes, freezing, or flushing may indicate stress. If you see such signals, you should back away.

A Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) perches in a blooming peach tree
Titmouse and Peach Blossoms

Now let’s talk about Empathy. Empathy is defined as a simulated emotional state that relies on the ability to perceive, understand, and care about the experiences or perspectives of another person or animal. In simple terms, PUT YOURSELF IN THEIR SHOES! To me, that is the easiest way to remember empathy. Think of ethics as a “code of conduct” and empathy as an emotion.

Let’s go back to our distressed mockingbird. More than likely, she is displaying her best aerial acrobatics because she is protecting her young. You really want to take a picture and share it on social media. After all, who wouldn’t want to see that? According to your new “code of conduct” (ethics), you should just back away and leave them alone. This is when you put yourself in their shoes (empathy)! How would you feel if strangers were invading your home to peek at your babies? How would you react? Would you go into full momma bear mode? Would you die to protect them? Of course, you would! Why should they act any differently?

When we intrude into a bird’s, or any other animal’s nesting area, we are putting unnecessary stress on both parents and chicks and putting them in danger. Whether we mean to or not.

As backyard birders, wildlife photographers, and human beings, don’t you think we owe the nature around us a little respect? Whether it’s in a national wildlife refuge, a state park, or even in your backyard. Few things in life are more rewarding than being outdoors and experiencing the natural wonders that surround us. It’s important to remember that we share this planet with an abundance of wildlife. Big and small. It is essential to understand the ethics of wildlife photography, as well as birding, and to show empathy to all your backyard visitors.

A Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) grabs a peanut from a backyard platform feeder.
Nutty Blue Jay

If this is your first time visiting my website or reading one of my blog posts, welcome, and thank you for joining us. Please subscribe here so you can receive updates on the next blog posts on Backyard Birding. You will also receive occasional discounts and newsletters. Please share my blog and galleries with family and friends! Remember to follow the Nature First and Leave No Trace principles and always strive to leave places better than you found them.

Until next time, keep the sun behind you and the birds in view


207 views4 comments


David Cutts
David Cutts
Feb 22, 2021

I 've had to fill mine up several times Cathy


Cathy Peebles
Cathy Peebles
Feb 22, 2021

Went out in snow for two days to fill the bird feeders


David Cutts
David Cutts
Feb 22, 2021

Thank you Fay


Fay Stout
Fay Stout
Feb 22, 2021

Well said David! Wildlife deserves our respect!

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