It Takes All of Us

October 25, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

For me, one of the most difficult things about wildlife photography is probably not what you think. It’s not the technical skill, research required, strength, discipline, travel to many and varied places, or exhibiting and selling work that’s hardest. Of course, those things have challenges, and don’t come easy; but what I find most challenging is witnessing other photographers – professionals, amateurs, hobbyists -- and other outdoor enthusiasts -- engaging in what’s come to be understood as unethical wildlife photography.  This doesn’t happen a lot, but it does happen; and even things that occur in small amounts can do serious harm.


Here’s what’s so challenging. We have a lot of people talking about unethical wildlife photography, including popular wildlife photographers and prominent organizations issuing very well-crafted and thought-out guidelines and policies on the dos and don’ts of wildlife photography. But we lack lucid, concrete, steps that we can take when we find ourselves right next to, or in the company of people engaging in unethical, or even dangerous behavior, while photographing wildlife. I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently because in my region of the US, we’re heading into owl season, and put simply, owls are keenly sought after by wildlife photographers, birders, and other wildlife lovers. In the last couple of years, I’ve had several encounters with other wildlife photographers, birders, and others, who were either, (1) willfully ignoring and by-passing clear protections to prevent people from getting too close to nesting owls; or (2) were not aware of the potential consequences of creating noisy, crowded conditions while photographing wildlife.  


Great Horned OwletGreat Horned OwletVirginia


You might ask – Isn’t there a place where such unethical people and behaviors can be reported so these actions can be stopped and prevented?  Well, in most circumstances, there is no such place or authority. Except for the few people who report what they believe is unethical behavior on Facebook birding groups or other social media groups, there are essentially no consequences to humans who choose to intentionally or unintentionally engage in unethical, disruptive and harmful wildlife photography or wildlife watching.That’s a hard truth, and completely unjust to the wildlife we love.


One of the things I see a lot in discussions about unethical wildlife photographers is a recounting and social-media, or email sharing, of an ethics policy from an authoritative source that states and describes the wrongs of unethical photography. There are a few of these ethics policies out there, and I’m grateful to the organizations that have invested the time, resources, and thought into developing ethics policies. Since I belong to and follow a few birding groups, the ethics policy I often see distributed among birders is the American Birding Association (ABA) Code of Ethics. It has three main provisions along with clarifying points on each of these provisions. The guiding provisions are:


  1. Respect and promote birds and their environment.
  2. Respect and promote the birding community and its individual members.
  3. Respect and promote the law and the rights of others.


There are also a few guidelines for ethical wildlife photography. For example, Principles of Ethical Field Practices, by the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) and Audubon’s Guide to Ethical Bird Photography and Videography.  NANPA’s guide emphasizes three ethical field practices, which align closely with ABA’s. A useful and important feature of NANPA’s ethics guide is its emphasis on photographers being knowledgeable and having knowledge and awareness of what they’re doing, where they’re going and others around them. For readability, I added “(have)” to each of the three NANPA principles below. 




Ethics policies and codes like these are essential, educational tools and resources that I believe make a difference. But what happens when you’re out in the field and you witness something unethical and inappropriate?  These real-world scenarios aren’t covered by any of the ethics policies or guidelines I’ve reviewed. Not everyone wants to be that person that tells a stranger, to their face, they’re doing something wrong.  In fact, many people avoid these kinds of situations because they don’t feel equipped to manage the situation effectively. There’s understandable fear and anxiety about these kinds of encounters with our fellow humans.  Alternatively, there are those that may speak up when they see an unethical photographer in action, but who may come off offensive and harsh because the only way they’ve been equipped to handle these situations is by reminding the offender that they’re “breaking rules.”  


In winter 2020-21, at the height of pandemic closures and staying-at-home in the United States, I had an encounter with a visitor who was among the thousands to visit the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park in Maryland to get a glimpse of the male painted bunting that had shown up in our area. The visitor was standing along with me and many others who were waiting for the bunting to appear when she started using a bird sounds app on her phone. There were several others nearby who saw and heard what I did. The disappointed looks on their faces signaled that they might have believed this was wrong, but no one said a word.  Using bird call recordings isn’t permitted in National Parks because, according to the National Park Service, “mimicking animal sounds is considered harassment, which is illegal.” ( ).


Painted Bunting - MalePainted Bunting - Male


At that time, I didn’t know that bird calling apps and sounds weren’t permitted in National Parks. By the way, many or all of the National Wildlife Refuges also prohibit bird calling. But here’s what I did know -- bird calling, under those conditions, was potentially harmful to this male painted bunting. Birds have excellent hearing and when they hear what they think is another bird in the area it can raise alarms, cause them to flee the area, cause them to search out the bird, and generally cause them to use up valuable energy. Further, it was the middle of winter; it was cold, food was scarce and the painting bunting was hundreds of miles from its warmer, and normal, winter range. This rare vagrant painted bunting was already under stress from many factors, and using bird calls just so the visitor could get a photo, just wasn’t a good choice. I told the visitor that the bird calling app was likely to add to the bunting’s stress. The visitor appeared to ignore me, continued to play the app for a few more seconds, eventually turned it off and then left the area.  


What if I had known the National Park’s position and policy that bird calling sounds and apps are considered wildlife harassment and therefore illegal?  I could just have led with that and told this visitor they were a rule breaker – period – done -- I can now go back to what I was doing.  Alternatively, as advised by NANPA’s ethics guidelines I could: “Report inappropriate behavior to proper authorities. Don’t argue with those who don’t care; report them.”  Both of these options are not unreasonable, and importantly, there could be situations where these are the only or best options. But, reporting someone, or getting in their face to tell them they broke a rule aren’t the only options. Also, these approaches get in the way of one critical thing – educating others on the impact they’re having.  Many people actually don’t know that things like bird calling, feeding wild animals, or getting too close or being too loud has consequences and can harm wildlife.


This is where a communication technique called “Authority of the Resource (ART)” can be invaluable because it supports effective and respectful interactions. This technique is embedded in the  “Leave No Trace” conservation principles, which have been broadly adopted by US National Parks and other recreation or public land areas. 


ART was laid out in 1990 by Dr. George Wallace, a professor specializing in human dimensions of natural resources at Colorado State University. He believed those who cause impacts in natural areas do so because they’re (a) unskilled; (b) uninformed; (c) careless; or (d) unintentional. Dr. Wallace observed a variety of law enforcement rangers in the field. He noted that rangers who incorporated an educational message in their interactions were more likely to successfully influence a visitor’s outdoor ethic.


A first step in using ART is recognizing that people who visit wild places, go hiking, birding, or photographing wildlife, aren’t usually there to cause harm. Should harm occur though, if we can clearly explain the impact their actions had, the consequences of the impact, and help them understand the preferred alternative, we can be successful in peacefully and respectfully changing behavior.


There’s a good deal of information on the internet about ART and some organizations offer training. Search your favorite web browser with “Authority of the Resource.”  Below, I provided a 4-step summary of how an interaction could proceed; and I use the experience I described earlier, witnessing a birder using a bird calling app in a National Park. One recommendation is that when you start your conversation, stand shoulder-to-shoulder (vs. face-to-face) with the person you’re addressing.


1. Introduce yourself and take a moment for ice breaking conversation.

Example: Hi, I’m Carolyn. I’m here like so many others to photograph this amazing bird. Is this your first visit out to see the painted bunting?


2. Give an objective description of the undesirable behavior observed.

Example: I noticed you were playing bird calls that sound like a painted bunting.


3. Reveal/"interpret" the implications of the undesirable behavior.Focus on how the behavior impacts to the resource or the experience of others.

Example: This little bunting is really a survivor out here. There’s a lot of people out here, it’s cold, and food can’t be easy to find out here. Those things put a lot of stress on this little bird.  Playing bird sounds can actually add to that stress. These birds are always on alert. The bunting will pay attention to the call and might even fly out from where it’s trying to rest, stay warm, or find food.


4. Describe the desired behavior. Communicate appreciation for the resource and model desired behavior when possible. Describe agency norm when appropriate.

Example: I’m really excited to see this bunting too. We all want to see this bird make it out here and not make things harder for it. It just takes patience. I feel like I should also let you know that it’s actually illegal to use bird call recordings in National Parks. The National Park system considers it harassment. You can find that on their web site, along with other rules for visiting the Parks.



As we wildlife photographers, birders, nature lovers, and other outdoor enthusiasts head into owl season, it’s not a bad idea to anticipate that we might encounter a few cases of photographers, birders, and enthusiasts, at all levels of expertise and skill, engaging in behaviors that put our wildlife and birds at risk.  Before you head out, refresh your memory on the ART technique, imagine the scenarios where it might be used and practice how to intervene effectively. You’ll be doing something great for the wildlife we love so much. 


It takes all of us.



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