Monday, December 2, 2013

Enjoy Those Snowy Owls But Don't Forget Birding Ethics...

Snowy Owl at Jones Beach, Long Island NY.
Over the weekend the number of Snowy Owls in our area increased dramatically!  I was very fortunate to see a few and share my good fortune with others like this lovely family of four. Rich, Margaret and their two kids joined Andria and I as we observed a Snowy Owl late yesterday afternoon at Jones Beach, Long Island.  The setting sun provided a lovely scene and we all enjoyed the bird until it was flushed by a few folks who were out in the dunes where they should not be and apparently got too close to the Owl.

Rich, Margaret and their two kids enjoying the Snowy Owls at Jones Beach.
And that is one of the dilemma that the presence of these birds present.  It seems, in our giddiness to see these wonderful birds, many of us forget good ethics and feel we have to get ridiculously close to see and photograph these birds. List Serves in the North East have already been buzzing with reports about questionable behavior, which comes from all camps whether birders, photographers or curious onlookers.

Jeffery Gordon, President of the American Birding Association taking note of all the fuss writes, what I think is a very measured and thoughtful response with an open letter to the birding community.

Dear Birders,

It's apparent that a MAJOR push of Snowy Owls into areas of dense human population is underway. It could peter out but it could build, too. Every time Snowies (or other owls) move into areas with lots of people, there are certain predictable conflicts, often involving trespassing and/or birds being pursued and flushed, sometimes repeatedly. I ask that all birders, most especially ABA members, do what they can to help head off, moderate, and mediate these conflicts.

The ABA Code of Ethics offers a lot of good advice for these situations and I suggest reading it and distributing it widely. (

I also would suggest that though the Code clearly says that the welfare of birds and their habitats should come first, it doesn't say that the welfare of birds is the SOLE consideration, trumping or obliterating all else. Projecting a positive image of the birding community is very important, too.

As I see it, the goal of the ABA community around this natural event should be the maximal good for birds, for birding, and for habitat protection. Because of this, I personally do not advocate harsh confrontations or internet "shaming" in any but the most egregious cases. And if you encounter egregious violations, you are certainly welcome to contact me ( or other ABA staffers, if you think an email or phone call from us may help.

It's true, flushing Snowy Owls to get photographs is bad. It's even worse if someone does it when other folks are trying to enjoy the bird from a respectful distance. It's bad manners, poor form, and it could have an actual negative impact on the owl's welfare, so it's to be carefully avoided. It's also, let's remember, not the absolute worst thing in the world that can and does happen to owls, either.

And the birding community sending the message that we are a strident and vindictive mob COULD actually be a worse outcome than an owl getting flushed, in some instances. Snowy Owls are black and white. Life isn't.

I am not advocating saying or doing nothing, not at all. But I am strongly in favor of keeping things as civil as possible, while trying to instill a sense of respect, awe, and even empathy for the serious, often desperate situation in which these magnificent birds find themselves.

All I ask is that birders conduct themselves as thoughtfully and respectfully as possible, even if other people sometimes don't rise to that standard. Think about the welfare of the bird and the habitat first. But don't neglect thinking about the welfare of birding and the birding community, too. It is possible to lose an individual battle or two and still resoundingly win the war.

Most of all, enjoy this amazing opportunity, and do what you can to inspire all people to enjoy and protect wild birds. Thank you.

Good birding,


Jeffrey Gordon
American Birding Association

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Rohrerbot said...

An amazing owl....and a good reminder for those out birding:)

Anonymous said...

I see people posting photos of Owls, often in flight, but I don't think I can assume they flushed the owl - can I? I hate to think they are being harassed. Hopefully, I'll share your blog post and someone will heed the warning.

Many thanks!