Today, I came upon a contentious thread about bird banding on my local birding listserv. This thread made me think of the emails I got in response to my Snowy Owl post — the post which criticized the photography field ethics we witnessed up at Boundary Bay. On today’s listserv, a member birder had concerns about the effects of banding on birds like dippers. The subsequent conversation veered toward some strong opinions, and someone posted an Arthur Morris quote from 2009, from Birdphotographers.net, where Morris talked about the impact of mist nests on birds.
I followed the link to that thread and read through Morris’s comments. Morris was defending the position of photographers in situations where they are unjustly scrutinized and criticized. He gave examples of how photographer disturbance of wildlife pales in comparison to more intrusive activities, and yet photographer access to some wild places is restricted based on perceived impact.
A few of Morris’s comments were precisely what one of the photographers said to me, in defending his field actions with Snowy Owls. For example, Morris pointed out how photographers are burdened with many more restrictions and prohibitions than hunters are on refuges. My email correspondent said the same thing — that guys were hunting in the same area where photographers were getting close to Snowy Owls, so who was causing more of a problem? (For the record, I agree about the disproportionate privilege afforded hunting on public lands, and have written about this subject previously.) Morris said, “At an NWR in northern Missouri …. all visitors MUST be off the tour roads by sunset. When I asked the refuge manager why, he stated that it was to protect the integrity of the refuge. Strange, as there are numerous hunting clubs on the eastern border of the refuge where the geese are shot at dawn each day.”
Morris also discussed distress from banding, surveying and other biologist measures which can have significant impact on birds and colonies. He wrote, “Hey, I have often stated that one team of researchers in a tern colony causes more disturbance on a single day than all US bird photographers combined in a year.” I thought about the bold wing tags I recently photographed, and effects of careless banding I’ve witnessed, such as toes caught in bands, bands choking a leg, birds injured while escaping from the banders … and I know Morris has valid and arguable points.
Of course, this discussion made me look again at my view of wildlife photography and wildlife photography ethics. If it’s true — and it is — that so many other pursuits cause wildlife much more distress than what photographers can inflict, why do I sometimes come down on photographers — in effect, calling out my own? Is it even fair to do so when you put photographic activity in the context of the bigger picture?
Reading through the above threads, I admit, I felt a sense of protectiveness for my fellow wildlife photographers, the many who do take field craft very seriously. Morris talked about a biologist who cautioned him that if a bird even looked at him, he was disturbing that bird … all the while actual shooting of those birds with shotguns was happening nearby. Morris wrote,”your images have inspired folks to protect the environment, save sensitive areas, get folks inspired to open their wallets. Who cares? You once disturbed a bird by walking towards it with your lens.”
I understand Morris’s sentiments here, and agree that a lot of what we photographers do doesn’t even come close to the harm inflicted by other human activities. The reason I still argue for stringent wildlife photography ethics, irrespective of what others are doing, is because it’s too easy and dangerous to fall into the tu quoque (the “you, too”) pattern of logical fallacy. That is, people will rationalize their own behavior by saying “well, he does something even worse, so I’m justified in doing what I’m doing.” I run into this argument frequently when I engage hunters in debates about wildlife ethics. I wish I had a Euro for every time I was told, “vegans cause harm, too, so I can do whatever I like to the ______ [insert “deer,” “ducks,” etc].” It’s flawed reasoning that leads to bad results.
I know that as a photographer, I’m in a unique and visible position, often stationed for hours at one spot where people are watching what I do. Beyond an inherent commitment to the well-being of the animal I’m photographing, I’ve found that other people do learn how to engage wildlife by watching what the photographer does. I’ve had the experience of people deciding to walk way around a flock of shorebirds, as one example, after they’ve chatted with me about the birds and what they’re doing on the beach. It’s a small gesture in the big picture of chaos that is this world, but the small actions do add up.
I know that causing a bird to fly from one perch to the next doesn’t inflict the same harm as if I were pointing a shotgun at that bird — and I don’t equate the two when I suggest a stringent set of ethics. I just I expect myself to be more diligent because I understand the repercussions of disturbing wildlife, which can be significant and even lethal. When my clear and stated intent is to cause no harm, it would be hypocritical to behave otherwise, no matter what anyone else around me is doing. Furthermore, as stated in the Arthur Morris threads, the bad behavior of a few photographers creates problems for photographers overall, in terms of reputation, respect and access to birding locations. When you then bring a number of photographers together in a scenario like the one we witnessed at Boundary Bay, field ethics are critical because of the incessant pressure the animals experience with that many humans in their midst. In the best of all worlds, by engaging in a way that hits a higher mark, I have a chance to inspire others to do the same. That’s always my hope, even though I know birds do look back at me when I point my lens.
Related posts: First … Signs of Snowies | Snowy Owls, Boundary Bay and Rethinking My Own Motivations | Staging Nature Shots | Marine Mammal Viewing From a Distance | Wildlife Photography Ethics Matter