Chronicles

Code of Ethics
by: Mike Lushington

        It sometimes happens, I have found, that the writing of one column prompts another.I guess that that might be in compensation for those times when ideas are short. Last week, I wrote about the recent sighting of the Great Gray Owl in Pt. LaNim and, in part, about the poor behaviours of a few people who went out to try to have a look at it. In that column, I referred to the American Birding Association's Code of Ethics for birders.

        The ABA takes seriously its mandate to encourage the study, proper enjoyment, and protection of North American birds in particular, and wildlife in general. It has recognized that there is a certain fringe element in birding (rather akin to loony sports parents, I'm afraid) which seems to assume that rules, guidelines of proper behaviour, courtesy, and common sense all come to nothing when there is a rare bird to be identified or photographed. Stories of such enthusiasts trespassing, breaking down hedges and gardens, invading back porches and outbuildings and committing all sorts of vandalism in order to get closer to a rare or elusive bird are legion. It is as though they have to touch the bird, to make it "theirs" in some bizarre way. In so doing, they forget that rare birds, especially in winter, are under a great deal of stress. Most often they are starving, which is why they appear in the first place. that is also why they can seem so confiding; they simply do not have the energy to fly away at every disturbance. Forcing them to fly by approaching too closely, then, merely adds to the stress, sometimes to a fatal degree. At the very least, it is pestering them while they are trying to hunt - and survive.

        This problem leads to something of an ethical dilemma for many of us. On the one hand, a rare bird may be an object of considerable ornithological interest. We are constantly studying movement patterns for example, and the sudden appearance of a bird like that owl in an area several thousand kilometres east of where it normally should be found brings several questions to the forefront. In order to study the bird, then, it is necessary to inform people that it is present. On the other hand, publicizing its presence encourages the lunatic fringe as well as serious birders. I do not know how others handle this dilemma but I do know that as soon as I realize that I have found a rare bird I immediately consider whether it can be observed without causing it undue stress, or without undue disturbance to people who might happen to live nearby. (For example, I have learned to keep my mouth shut if a friend reports a rare bird at a backyard feeder, at least until I ask the friend if he or she is prepared to put up with what can seem, on occasion, to be an invasion.)

        If, as was the case with the owl, I feel that the bird has sufficient room to escape attention if it so chooses, I don't worry too much. A rare gull down by one of the wharfs has a similar option, but a small bird at a feeder may not. Further, the people who own that feeder may not be prepared to wake up some morning to find that their driveway, or porch, or backyard, have been taken over by earnest but thoughtless so-called birders who want to add another trophy - and who are prepared to go to unacceptable lengths to get it.

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