Has birding etiquette gone too far?
When protocol becomes the headline, we lose a gigantic opportunity to share in the appreciation of avifauna
Occasionally in this space I have included an item about not harassing owls for photos or other similar misdeeds toward birds. I’m a believer in the American Birding Association’s Code of Birding Ethics, which provides a set of wonderful guidelines to follow while in the field.
This has come to mind again as it appears that it’s going to be a good winter to see Snowy Owls in Chicagoland. They’ve moved south in big numbers, likely in search of food due to a scarcity in the far north.
But I generally have avoided making etiquette THE headline in posts, and here’s why. Part of it is news judgment, and part of it is messaging about birds and birding. In writing a news story, one must determine what’s most newsworthy and what’s in the headline. A Snowy Owl invasion is a great example. Snowy Owls unto themselves are a headline; their appearance in our area is news. They are very unique birds: our only all-white owl, mostly active during the day and even more popular because of Hedwig in the Harry Potter series. People post repeatedly on social media saying that seeing a Snowy Owl would be a dream come true, or a bucket-list item. The reasons they come south are sort of mysterious unto themselves. Then you also have the overall mystique of owls. Many, many people—most people—have never seen an owl in the wild.
So there’s a lot there. Snowy Owls are also a “cross-over species,” a term that I just made up. They’re likely to draw the interest of the casual birding fan, people who wouldn’t call themselves birders (a whole other conundrum that could be a post for another day), but are aware of owls and might want to see one someday.
If you’re one of the bucket-list people, the cross-over fans, what do you do when you hear of an owl being present? You might go down to the lakefront or out to a farm field to try to find one. And how cool is that? People wanting to get outdoors and enjoy nature—that’s what we need, it’s what we want. If people enjoy nature, they’re more likely to advocate for birds and the environment. Umpteen birders, let's call them the in-crowd, do the same thing every day, traveling hours and hours to go see a single bird.
When the bucket-list person goes out and gets excited, might even get too close to the bird for a photo—because they don’t know better—they might get admonished by the in-crowd. Their bucket-list experience has just gone from pure joy to utter deflation. We might’ve just lost someone we could have brought into the fold of birding and environmental issues. Someone we really need. If they leave feeling like the in-crowd are at best officious and at worst irascible, or annoying noodges, then what have we accomplished?
Of course the well-being and health of the Snowy Owl is of concern. If everyone rushes toward the owl for photos, and flushes it from its perch, it would make it expend precious energy. We know many Snowy Owls are on the brink of starvation this far south in wintertime.
The point here is that there should be a balance, a balance between what’s really important and the desire to impart etiquette. A balance between bringing people into nature and ensuring the well-being of any bird, especially rare and vagrant species.
The headline is that there is a Snowy Owl invasion under way, an incredible natural phenomenon and one that should be celebrated! It’s something unique to these northern climes, and the birds turn up in some surprising places. And that’s what we need the majority of folks to know. And in the long-run I believe that’s also what is best for birds.