People passionate about nature

Wildlife photography etiquette for a social media generation

Simple rules to keep animals (and yourself) safe

Social media and digital photography have changed the culture of wildlife watching. It has created a new group of people. There are still your traditional birders/wildlife watchers who aren’t very active on social media. These birders were around at a time when wildlife photography was reserved for professional photographers. Today digital photography and social media have changed how people interact with wildlife. More people are out there taking and sharing photos of wildlife than ever before.

More people are taking an interest in wildlife, and more people are enjoying nature. This is surely a good thing!

So, what does this mean for the wildlife?

“I think people are interacting differently with wildlife,” says Nature Manitoba’s Important Bird Areas Program Coordinator, Tim Poole. “If you’re just looking at a bird with binoculars, for example, you usually take a quick look and leave. But if you plan to take photos some people might be moving around more and spending more time near an animal to compose your shot.”

This can cause stress for the animal or make them feel threatened. When an animal feels threatened it can become stressed, it can start acting defensively, and it may even leave its current location or try to lure you away from its young. The animal is expending energy - vital energy it might need for breeding or migrating. If an animal is flushed from its location it might not have time to assess other dangers, and could harm itself trying to get away.

Traditionally, birders would only count a bird on their life list if seen by their own eyes, or through their binoculars. Interestingly, with the rise of digital photography, many people now view wildlife through a digital screen. This highlights the contrast between different groups of wildlife watchers – although Nature Manitoba takes the view that people can make their own minds up on whether to count a bird towards their life list or not.

Every group is different, and every group enjoys wildlife under different rules. This is why today more than ever, it’s important to follow some general rules of etiquette when viewing wildlife.

“They are simple things really,” Poole says. “For example, if you’re walking in the woods and an adult bird starts doing a distraction display in an attempt to get you to move away, the right thing to do is to move away and allow the bird to get back to its young. Obviously the longer an animal is away from their young the more vulnerable the young are to other dangers, for example predation.”

There are some great guidelines out there for wildlife watching. Because Nature Manitoba hosts several birding events, we like the code of ethics from the American Birding Association (which can also be adapted to apply to wildlife other than birds). But it’s a good rule of thumb to be aware of the more sensitive issues surrounding wildlife, birds in particular. Some basic guidelines are:

  • Be careful around nests, you don’t want an adult bird to have to abandon its nest.
  • Be careful around breeding colonies of birds – an entire colony can abandon its breeding grounds if severely disturbed.
  • Be careful around lekking birds like a grouse – use a blind or a car to watch them. All their energy is going into their mating display, which makes it very vulnerable.
  • Endangered and threatened species – take special care because many of these birds are especially sensitive to disturbance.
  • Owls – owls are very sensitive and easily show visible signs of stress.

You can also educate yourself about signs of stress in animals. For example, owls have feathers around their beak that will become erect when the bird is stressed, birds of prey might screech when stressed or when you are too close to their nest, or they might raise their hackles and become agitated.

Being aware of how you are interacting with an animal is also for your own protection. It’s important to make sure you aren’t putting yourself in danger. Even if you are doing everything right, you can’t always protect yourself from being attacked by an animal. If an animal feels threatened because of something you’re doing, it might increase the risk of harm to you.

“Basically, if you see a bird or an animal start to change its behaviour when you aree near it, it is time to move away,” Poole says.