The rise in popularity of birding in recent years has been awe-inspiring and welcome, as the more of us care about birds, the more chance they have of being helped in this time of need, when prospects seem bleak for many species. With this increase in numbers, it’s a good time to remind ourselves of a few manners, when talking about and engaging in our favorite subject. When we take to our devices online, or head out to the streets, gardens, parks, coasts and countryside to see what we can see, we need to be aware of our behavior, for each other and the birds.
The great thing about birding is that it unifies people, and attracts individuals from so many diverse backgrounds, each with their own unique perspectives on how to engage in this fascinating hobby. Fostering a harmonious birding community is essential to the enjoyment of all and can be easily achieved if we all adhere to a few guidelines and etiquette behaviors. Birding etiquette applies to the birds too, of course, and if we can show respect and kindness to all then we’ll have ourselves an unrivaled inclusive birding experience.
Peopling: Embrace diversity in birding
Respecting the views and differences of opinion is simply an instruction for any situation, and birding is no exception. Birding attracts such a broad range of individuals: novices, experienced birders, photographers, families, researchers; anyone — and each person approaches birding with their own expectations, priorities, and interpretations. There’s something so captivating about birds that many of us can think we have some kind of ownership over them, but this is wrong. It is essential to respect differences and acknowledge that there is no single "right" way to enjoy birding.
If someone wants to use an app, or consult a field guide, then that’s their way to learn, so you should be encouraging their development rather than looking down on it. If you’re a lister, go list! If you like to watch from your favorite armchair in the warm, you get yourself comfy. If you love car-birding, don’t forget to check your fuel gauge. It’s all the same concept, and we can do it however we like, no way is wrong. By embracing diverse perspectives, we can create an environment where everyone feels welcome and comfortable to pursue their passion for birds.
The star attractions: Give birds their space
Birds live incredibly hectic lives, and need every ounce of energy they can muster through food and drink. Flight is incredibly energy-consuming, and even the tiniest fluctuation in air temperatures can make flying more exhausting than normal. As we learn more about birds through ever-advancing technology and research, it can be tempting to become overfamiliar, but they are still wild animals and deserve their space just as much as everything else out there. Stay away from known nesting sites during breeding season; never pursue a bird to get a better picture or look; avoid using recordings or mimicking calls to attract them to you.
Their existence is a tenuous one at best, and if we were to give them cause for alarm, or false information about potential mating or territory prospects, they could be using up energy they vitally need for another task, like evading a predator or feeding their chicks. Observe calmly and patiently from a distance and if you can hear the bird and not see it, enjoy the beauty of its song. Birds experience stress very quickly, which can cause terrible consequences, and you’re here to love them, right?
Guidelines for respectful birding
Guidelines provide a framework for maintaining order, safety, and respect, and while it is impossible and perhaps not even welcome to provide an exhaustive list of rules, certain general principles should be followed:
1. One of the main things to be mindful of when dealing with creatures such as birds is avoiding excessive noise; birds can be easily frightened, and so can people – there may be someone nearby who has some sort of noise sensitivity issue, PTSD, even a headache … it doesn’t matter what the issue is, it’s just the decent thing to do to keep your voice down. This includes making no phone or video calls.
2. Stay on designated paths to minimize disturbance, and refrain from overcrowding birding locations. The formation of nature reserves in particular relies on a lot of background work and wrangling, and wrong-footedness can undermine all that work. Trails and paths through reserves are usually planned well for the benefit of everyone to see as much as possible whilst maintaining no-go areas so that the natural habitat can thrive. Don’t tread will-nilly through the undergrowth; aside from the untold damage you could wreak, others may take your cue as a free-for-all.
3. Respecting private property is a big one – birds know no boundaries, and you may have spotted a rare find over there in that garden. If you want to get closer, ask the property owner first – most times they will be thrilled to help out and find out what you are up to. If you are on a nature reserve and you see one of those signs that is shouting NO ENTRY at you, there’s a reason for that, possibly hazards lie ahead or there is some habitat management going on, potentially nesting sites that must not be disturbed. If a sign says something, respect what it says and don’t take it personally. Maintaining positive relationships with landowners can be crucial going forward if ever their cooperation is needed in the future.
Trails and paths through reserves are usually planned well for the benefit of everyone to see as much as possible whilst maintaining no-go areas so that the natural habitat can thrive.
Movers and shakers: Patience in crowds
Birders are often drawn to extraordinary events such as mass migrations or rare sightings, leading to the formation of large crowds. The thrill of following the crowd as word ripples down that there is a rare bird up ahead can be quickly thwarted if there’s too many of you pushing around and forming some unruly mob. Be the one who waits their turn; this also has the added bonus of not frightening the bird away, meaning you all eventually see it by being patient and quiet.
While mass migratory spectacles are undoubtedly awe-inspiring, they can present challenges when it comes to maintaining order and ensuring a pleasant experience for all involved. Issues like limited parking spaces, congestion, and compromised access can arise. It is essential for birders to exercise patience, cooperation, and respect for the environment and fellow enthusiasts in such situations. Often, certain events will be part of the birding calendar and there will be designated places for good numbers to gather and leave the birds undisturbed, so always check out the local birding groups for any info.
Inclusivity for an enjoyable birding experience
Inclusivity in the birding community is vital – the joy of birds should be felt by everybody and ‘every body’. One in four US citizens alone have a disability; and not all disabilities are visible. Creating and respecting accessible spaces and opportunities for individuals with disabilities or mobility challenges is crucial. Wheelchair-accessible bird hides, accessible paths, and the needs of visually impaired birders through audio guides or tactile experiences are thankfully becoming more commonplace, and these facilities are more than welcome – indeed, they should be there by default.
Being mindful of the needs of others is an excellent way for all to enjoy birding. If someone needs to ask questions, let them, and answer respectfully and share your knowledge if you can. If someone is having difficulty either hearing a guide, or seeing a bird, assess if you are in a position to do anything about that, either by simply moving out the way or asking them if they need help. But — always ask first, and never assume help is needed, likewise in what form it will take. Allow the other person to explain what they need if they do indeed need it.
Most of the time, everyone is well-mannered, respectful and decent when it comes to the great love of watching birds. From time to time, however, the crabbier side of human nature can rear its head, and if you do see someone being disrespectful or antagonistic in any way, if you feel able to calmly step in and share a few quiet words of encouragement to both parties, simply explain that birding is meant for all, no matter who we are or how we do it. By taking these steps above and showing others how to do them, we can ensure that everyone can enjoy the wonders of birding in a polite and welcoming environment where the ultimate winners are the undisturbed birds.