Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Idiot's Guide to Birding Etiquette

Don't get me started: Of course you know what this is. It's obvious to anyone with eyeballs. And no, you can't look at it. I was here first.

A few weeks ago, Glenn and I were up in L.A., where we found an odd sapsucker at the L.A. County Arboretum. After a couple of days of staring at Glenn's photos of the bird in puzzlement, I sent a message to the moderator of the Los Angeles County Birding listserv, with a picture of the sapsucker and a request that he post the photo and my request for ID help. He wrote back promptly, said he thought it was a Red-breasted/Red-Naped hybrid, and said he'd prefer that I join the group and post the message myself, which I did.

My query triggered three responses: the first saying it was obviously a Red-breasted Sapsucker; the second saying it was obviously a Red-naped, which I could have figured out if I had a copy of the Sibley guide, which, by the way, a newbie birder such as me should think of getting. The third response was an offline e-mail from another group member apologizing for the snottiness of the Red-naped guy, saying this attitude among L.A. birders was why he preferred birding in Orange County.

(And yes, before posting my query, I did look spend a lot of time poring through my copies of Sibley, Kaufman, and the National Geographic guide, as well as a lot of online images. And no, my bird didn't match up directly with any of them. Why would I be wasting everyone's time if I hadn't done this? Duh!)

This made realize how lucky I was to have first gotten into birding in OC. Not only are the birds great, but so are most of the birders. I've posted any number of dumb queries on OC Birding, and have always gotten back helpful and courteous responses. In the field, people are almost always friendly and generous about sharing their finds.

But this isn't the case elsewhere. Consider this guide to birding etiquette: much of it is common sense, but some of it seems selfish and weird. Don't ask other birders what they've been looking at? Don't join groups of birders looking at a bird? Don't ask other photographers about their gear? (What are photographers supposed to talk to each other about, then?)

To be fair, the author of this essay clearly states that he sees birding and photography as solo time, not socializing time. I can definitely relate—birding for me a a necessary escape from office politics and other human interactions I'd just as soon avoid. But part of the joy of birding is learning from the community of birders. If everyone birded competitively, and exclusively in isolation, the birding world would be a much poorer place—to the extent that it would exist at all.

So in the interest of constructive engagement (okay, venting my pet peeves), here is my guide to birding etiquette:

1. It's all about the birds. Don't do anything that might hurt or unduly stress them.

2. Be patient with new birders and non-birders: See (1): it's all about the birds: making more people aware of and appreciative of birds means making more people willing to protect birds and their environment.

3. Share your knowledge and expertise, as appropriate to your own skill level: See (1) and (2). And increasing your karmic balance never hurts.

4. Be courteous and helpful to other birders: Don't jump into the line of vision of people looking at something, don't hoard your findings, and if someone asks you what you've seen, tell them.

4a. If you have a legitimate reason not to tell them (for instance, you've found a family of nesting birds that looks stressed out, or the questioner is Ted Nugent ), a polite lie of omission may be in order. Sticking your nose in the air and walking away is not.

4b. If you're out for some "me" time and find yourself sucked into unwanted conversation with other birders/photographers, excuse yourself as diplomatically as possible. Again, a little white lie may be appropriate. How about "It's not you, it's me"?

4c. If you try to engage another birder/photographer and find that he or she wants to be left alone, just leave that person alone!

5. Don't sneer at other birders' mistakes. No matter how much you know, lording it over everyone else like some trash-talking USC halfback won't endear you to anyone. And it won't impress people who know more than you do (and there are always more of these than you think).

5a. If you insist on violating (5), you forfeit your right to complain if, the next time you misidentify some Empidonax flycatcher in a public forum (and this will happen, since you're human), every birder in a 100-mile radius jumps all over you like a police informant in San Quentin.

6. Photographers: Enough of the Canon-Nikon wars already! Sheesh.

Oh yes, the bird in the picture above? It's an adult male American Redstart, which has been wintering in Laguna Niguel Regional Park. Glenn took this photo yesterday. Cute little bugger!


Sparverius said...

Amazing. I know there are people out there like that. And it makes me keep my head down for fear of violating some unbreakable law. When all I really want to do is ask someone who knows more than I do what the heck I'm looking at.

I hope I'm birding next to you some time.

Felicia said...

Thanks! If you ever come out to Southern California, let me know; there's some really good stuff out here!

And keep asking questions; I do believe there are more decent people birding out there than jerks, but alas, the jerks tend to be louder!

Let's hope the rest of us can drown them out with decency!

Felicia said...

Thanks! If you ever come out to Southern California, let me know; there's some really good stuff out here!

And keep asking questions; I do believe there are more decent people birding out there than jerks, but alas, the jerks tend to be louder!

Let's hope the rest of us can drown them out with decency!

Daniel said...

Hear me out...a while back I participated on birding tours in my native Honduras and some folk on the trips paid around 2 grand to see and possibly photograph 2 or 3 lifers, so for them getting those birds and seeing them undisturbed is a real big deal as in "dont bother me im watching a harpy eagle, honduran emerald, resplendent quetzal etc etc"

On a personal note I totally agree with you, experienced birders owe teaching younger birders the ropes of the thing as to continue the legacy of birding...but always respect the ABA code of birding ethics and some common sense on not disturbing people who want a more personal experience....

anything you wanna buddy write me an email and ill find a way to help you out ok!