Outdoors with Tom Venesky: Secrecy and etiquette vital among birdwatchers

By Tom Venesky - [email protected]

When I began running the list of local bird sightings in the paper every Sunday, a person who compiles the list asked that I not run the names of those reporting birds and keep the locations vague.

I understood why.

While most of us are respectful of wildlife and private property, there are a few who can’t resist the urge to get up close. Call it an over-abundance of curiosity or just strong desire to snap the perfect photo, but when it comes to observing birds and other wildlife we should keep a distance.

Especially in winter.

Despite the current frigid temperatures, wildlife is doing just fine relying on their fur, feathers or hair, adjusting their metabolism and reducing activity.

But when we attempt to get too close, we create a disturbance that, no matter how slight, causes wildlife to burn precious calories.

And even when winter survival isn’t an issue, getting too close can still be a problem.

Such a situation occurred recently in Bucks County when a Harris’s sparrow appeared in a backyard. Pennsylvania is well outside the range of a Harris’s sparrow, and the species is declining.

So, to have one turn up in Bucks County certainly generated a lot of interest from birders. The property owner where the sparrow is being seen agreed to allow birders near his backyard to photograph the bird from the road.

The agreement worked fine as birders were able to see and photograph a unique species to the area, and the sparrow itself remained undisturbed.

But that wasn’t the case for long.

Soon, reports surfaced that at least one individual entered the homeowner’s yard to get closer to the sparrow. Not only did such a move risk creating an issue with the homeowner, but it also caused an unnecessary disturbance to the rare sparrow.

And sparked a pretty heated debate within the birding community.

How close is too close when it comes to trying to see or photograph a bird, or any wildlife for that matter?

Can a rogue birder armed with a camera cause so much disturbance to actually threaten the well-being of the bird he or she is trying to photograph?


Can these actions also cause the landowner to prohibit further viewing of the species?


Birds burn a lot of calories on a daily basis just from flying alone. It’s a rare sight to see a bird sitting still for any length of time, and during the winter those energy reserves and calories become even more crucial.

Sometimes, during long stretches of severe cold, a bird can become so calorie-depleted that its next flight could be its last. Making a bird fly, even if it’s unintentional, could result in a life-or-death consequence.

And the risk isn’t exclusively present in the winter.

The potential danger posed by disturbance also extends to the spring when intrusion could negatively impact nesting birds. That’s why the nest locations of bald eagles, for example, are usually kept quiet.

The risk of disturbance is the reason why the Pennsylvania Game Commission goes to great lengths to maintain secrecy when it bands peregrine falcon chicks every year. While the nests are typically in hard-to-access locations such as cliffs and buildings, there is always someone who will want a closer look. Such a desire could be enough to panic the chicks and send them free-falling out of the nest.

When it comes to rare or unique birds that appear in the area, such as the Harris’s sparrow, such an occurrence is bound to generate attention within the birding community. And when a property owner is generous enough to allow limited access so the sighting can be enjoyed by all, sometimes if just one person pushes the boundaries there is a lot to lose.

When people don’t play by the rules, and access to view a rare bird is lost, it means the sighting may not be reported and biologists won’t have access to valuable data.

Yes, sometimes secrecy is necessary for the benefit of the resource, but a little etiquette benefits us all.


By Tom Venesky

[email protected]

Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TomVenesky

Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TomVenesky