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Fascination Can Lead To Intrusion

  It was about six or seven years ago when a small group of outdoor enthusiasts gathered around me early one night as I lured in a barred owl. We could see, first one, then two barred owls approaching, their graceful forms softly etched in the moonlight as they both landed in a tree directly above where we were standing. As the tape recorder continued to play a variety of calls, the barred owls that had come to see what rivals had dared venture onto their turf, repeatedly answered the fake calls, one of them so agitated that you could see its form pumping vigorously back and forth in the dim light as it barked back in anger. The effort to get a response with a tape recorder was a success, my audience was impressed, and the owls soon left, likely realizing it was all a hoax. The entire exercise probably lasted no more than three minutes, but some birding purists say that is too much. In fact, any intrusion into the lives of birds, is too much.
As birding continues to edge past second position as North America’s most popular hobby, the pressure on local birds has never been greater as avid birders take advantage of advanced technology to get a glimpse or a photo of their subjects. In our attempts to do so, are we in danger of being so focused on our quarry that we become blind to the possible hazards of this practice?
All of us have used various techniques to lure birds into viewing in the winter by “spishing,” basically doing as the name suggests – making long drawn out “spish-h-h” sounds several times in a row. Another method is “kissing for birds,” a series of loud, lip-smacking, squeaking noises made by kissing the back of your hand. It is believed that the noises created resemble distress signals, and birds instinctively launch into a mobbing behaviour in an effort to drive off the supposed intruder. Quite harmless one would think, unless performed during the nesting season, as the practice can draw birds from their nests, leaving the contents vulnerable to attack by predators. It is easy to understand that playing the recorded songs of owls, as we did, also could result in disastrous consequences if the practice is abused. 
The case against panting posses of overzealous birders pursuing their prey is mounting. Despite there being a “Birders Code of Ethics” which points out dangers to bird listers and photographers, still we find individuals whose only interest is to get the photo or that all important tick on the bird checklist, at any cost. Do we really want to treat that owl, that rare bird or any creature, like some movie star?
We need to look at how far technology has come in recent years, and how inadvertently we have played a role in its advancement. Remember the Rare Bird Hotline? If a rare bird was found, a telephone tree was put into service with keen birders calling others on their list until the word had spread. If the bird was lucky, it had already left by the time word finally got around. Today, the Internet listserv has the news broadcast to hundreds of people within seconds. A friend of mine from Toronto e-mailed me a photo of a rare hawk-owl with instructions that I could use it on my website with the understanding that I not reveal its location. I already knew it had been seen on the Leslie Street Spit, and so did hundreds of others who are subscribers to the popular OntarioBirds listserv. This is not to suggest for a moment that all camera owners are paparazzi, but the numbers of photographers has increased dramatically, with advances in digital photography making inexpensive high quality cameras accessible to everyone like never before. Fortunately, local nature photographers are working diligently among themselves and in groups to improve their image by adhering to a strict code of conduct. 
With today’s sophisticated optical equipment there really is little need to exploit and harass at the expense of birds abandoning their nest and causing even more disruption to their lives than they already face day to day. We should not be ganging up on birds and trampling property posted as private to get that crippling view or tick on a checklist just because others are doing it. Now and then, we need to put down our cameras and our Blackberries our binoculars and life lists, and and consider the true value of those things we see in our travels and accord them the same respect as we would want them to give us, if the tables were turned.
Even as a naturalist myself who makes his living teaching about nature and leading guided hikes, I need to re-examine my ethics a bit more, and even question my own behaviour. Will I be taking a tape recorder onto the boardwalk at the Frink Centre again this spring to delight everyone as I have done in the past as Virginia rails run across my feet, and I wait for a sora rail to winnow back to me from the depths of the cattails? That’s a tough call for anyone charged with the responsibility of making nature available to those on a guided hike. If I do, it will only be to get a brief response, and only once, then we will be on our way, content that we have created but a minimal disruption in the daily lives of these birds, hopefully no more interruption than what would be created from a passing rival bird of the same species.

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About the Author: Terry Sprague became interested in nature at an early age. "Growing up on the family farm at Big Island, 12 miles north of Picton, on the shore of the beautiful Bay of Quinte, I was always interested in the natural world around me. During my elementary school days at the small one-room school I attended on Big Island, I received considerable encouragement from the late Marie Foster, my teacher in Grades 6 through 8. Her home was a short distance from where I lived and through the years she was responsible for developing my interest in birds. The late Phil Dodds, a former editor with the Picton Gazette, also a great nature enthusiast, suggested I undertake a nature column - a column I have submitted weekly since 1965. The column has since expanded to the Napanee Beaver and the Tweed News. Life has been good, and through the years I have enjoyed working with such nature related agencies as Glenora Fisheries Research as a resource technician, Sandbanks Provincial Park as a park interpreter and Quinte Conservation as a naturalist and outdoor events coordinator. As a nature interpreter, currently working from my home office, I now create and lead numerous interpretive events in the area and offer indoor audio/visual presentations to interested groups. Could one who is interested in nature have enjoyed a more exhilarating period in the work force?" Terry's website is

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  1. Thank you, Louisa, for your comments. It has been, and always will be, a problem as our interest in the natural world escalates. However, we now do have a “Birders’ Code of Ethics” which has been created by the Ontario Field Ornithologists which addresses this issue of intrusion and has done much to educate both nature enthusiasts and avid photographers. As with all pursuits, there will always be the irresponsible, and we will never change them. As for the MMP call CDs, they have been designed to get a response, and nothing more. Repeatedly playing this CD though would lure them from their nests, leaving them prone to predation. With the human population escalating out of control, we need to pay even more attention to what you say.

  2. Louisa says:

    I’ve never understood the need to chase after a bird. Honestly, they can’t be caught, even on film for me and my camera, I’m just not quick enough. However, I have seen awesome photography that I do appreciate and have wondered what the person had to do to get it.

    I have thought about this very thing when doing the Marsh Monitoring Program marsh surveying of birds, where we play the CD of bird sounds and listen for responses so we can document their presence. And this is indeed in their nesting season. Is it wrong? All we’re doing it for is to count them and compare year to year to see if they exist.

    On one hand it is fantastic that so many people are avidly interested in nature, and especially the animals out there. But yes, where to we stop with exploiting them? It’s like a zoo in a natural setting. If we don’t subscribe to zoos and their activities, how can we condone tracking animals in their natural setting? Just to ‘see’ them? I’ve been guilty of this, when my husband and I last year paid a guide to take us out into the wild areas of middle Newfoundland to view caribou. I was constantly aware that I was encroaching unnecessarily on their turf. Why? Because I was nosy and I am genuinely fascinated and amazed at such creatures. But is it right to do this? We didn’t follow them – in fact often they were curious and came towards us on their own time. But still…

    I’m sure glad animals don’t act as we do. Gosh, there wouldn’t be a peaceful moment for us, with all those eyes trying to catch a glimpse of our behaviours and whatnot!

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