Ethics for Nests and Chicks

Resting American Oystercatcher juvenileResting American Oystercatcher juvenile – Nikon D200, handheld, f6.3, 1/1000, ISO 250, Nikkor 80-400mm VR at 400mm, natural light

Spring is just around the corner and before long birds will be building nests, mating, laying eggs and chicks will hatch. Fluffy little chick images often circulate around the internet in larger numbers than other seasons and get shared on social media sites along with hundreds of “likes”, ohs and ahs. I must admit that there are times when I see images that appear to have been taken close  or with a short focal length lens that I shudder because I know that the chicks were at risk.

For me as a bird photographer it is a time when I am even more aware than normal of the ethics regarding nesting birds and chicks. Recent discussions about ethics on the ABA blog, ABA Facebook page and news articles about the harassment of nests of endangered species I thought it wouldn’t hurt to post some of the ethics about photographing nests and chicks.

One of the most important things to remember is that an image is never as important as the safety and well being of the subject.

1. Do not approach too closely

Approaching to closely stresses the adults, could force them to abandon their eggs or be off the eggs/chicks too long. For instance, I would never approach a Bald Eagle nest and do close ups of them with a 55mm lens because it is too close and puts the chicks at risk.

I will stay much further away from chicks to get images and make bigger crops to show those chicks in the frame. The photo above of the oystercatcher chick is only 47% of the original frame, I cropped it to make the chick appear larger in the frame.  

2. If the birds show any sign of distress, back away

If the birds are distressed they are not doing what they should naturally be doing and they are expending valuable energy that they need to raise their chicks.

3. Don’t trim leaves, twigs or branches to get a clearer shot, you may inadvertently attract predators or cause the eggs/chicks to over heat

Adult birds build their nests where they do because they want to protect the nests and chicks from heat, cold and predators and while trimming away leaves might give a photographer a “better shot” it can also put the chicks at risk of overheating and predation.

4. Follow local, state and federal guidelines concerning nesting birds

The local, state and federal guidelines are different for some birds. For instance, there are federal buffer zones for some endangered species of 500 feet and being closer can upset and endanger the chicks if approached closer than that and could cause a person to be fined or placed in custody. If there is a sign near a nesting area they are usually placed at or near the minimum distance that the nesting area should be approached often there will be a roped boundary. Some folks think that doesn’t apply to them but it does unless they officially have permission to go beyond the boundary.

Research local, state and federal guidelines if you are unsure of those boundaries.

5. Don’t harass the birds to get an action shot

Raising young takes energy and they need every bit of energy that they have to successfully rear those young.

6. Don’t stay a long time near a location with nesting birds or chicks, that disrupts their normal behavior

Chicks need to be fed often and our presence nearby might delay those feedings. They might also need to be sheltered from the sun and the adults might not come into the nest to shade the chicks or if they weather is chilly to brood them and keep them warm.

I feel that as a bird photographer I need to care for my subjects every time I am in the field and that is amplified when there are young, defenseless chicks. In my opinion there will never be an image that is more important than the health, safety and well being of my subjects and that the young birds we protect today are the subjects of the future.

Sad as it might be some of the chicks in those cute images shared on social media may have died because of the photos that were taken and the chicks were placed at risk. That is just plain wrong.


For more information on the ethics of photographing nesting birds or chicks: the Principles of Birding Ethics published by the American Birding Association. Also NANPA’s Ethical Practices (pdf)

Long billed Birds and Preening

Long-billed Curlew preeningLong-billed Curlew preening

Preening in birds is essential for keeping their feathers clean, arranged correctly and for some birds it is a way to distribute oils from the uropygial gland which helps to keep the feathers clean and healthy. For some shorter billed birds the process looks relatively simple to me but for long billed birds it seems a bit more difficult. Long-billed Curlews are easily able to access the uropygial gland and the feathers on the back of their bodies but are unable to reach some feathers near their head and neck because of the length of their bills. I have seen them preen the easily accessible feathers first then rub their heads and necks against the freshly preened feathers which seems like a way to distribute the oils from the uropygial gland to those hard to reach areas.

Preening Roseate SpoonbillPreening Roseate Spoonbill

For some long billed wading birds the preening process appears to also be a challenge. This Roseate Spoonbill image shows how about the closest that they can use their spatulate bills is where the long neck of the spoonbill meets its body.  Like the Long-billed Curlew I have seen them rub their heads and necks over freshly preened body feathers to help distribute the oils.

Preening American OystercatcherPreening American Oystercatcher

American Oystercatchers have relatively long bills but to me they appear to have fewer challenges preening than the Roseate Spoonbills and Long-billed Curlews.

American White Pelican preeningAmerican White Pelican preening

American White and Brown Pelicans have long necks and bills and the oils from uropygial gland are especially important because the pelicans are in and on the water often and the oils help to keep their feathers dry and buoyant. This American White Pelican image shows the pelican rubbing its neck and head against the other freshly preened feathers to distribute the oils much the same way as Long-billed Curlews, Roseate Spoonbills, American Oystercatchers and other long billed birds use.

These birds also use their feet to scratch and that may help distribute oils and remove debris from the feathers they can’t reach with their bills. I haven’t observed the birds I have posted here preening each other but do know that some species like Common Ravens do.

Birds are amazing…



American Oystercatcher Lift Off

American Oystercatcher Lift OffAmerican Oystercatcher Lift Off – Nikon D200, handheld, f7.1, 1/1000, ISO 160, Nikkor 80-400mm VR at 400mm, natural light

Yesterday was rough, one of the biggest reasons for that is that my internet connection screwed up and new equipment is needed so this is just a simple post due to exhaustion, frustration or a combination thereof.

I thought I had already posted this American Oystercatcher image but I haven’t until now. I photographed this American Oystercatcher at Fort De Soto County Park’s north beach in February of 2009. The adult Oystercatcher had been resting on the sand and I took a series of images of the shorebird before it saw something in the air that caused it to be alarmed then take flight. It isn’t uncommon for Peregrine Falcons to be around the north beach area and the oystercatcher may have spotted it or another predator behind me.

One of two species of oystercatchers in North America the American Oystercatchers quickly stole my heart after I first saw them because of their colors, long bills, pink legs and their Goth-like black toenails.


Adult and juvenile American Oystercatchers feeding side by side

Adult and juvenile American OystercatchersAdult and juvenile American Oystercatchers feeding side by side – Nikon D200, handheld, f7.1, 1/750, ISO 160, Nikkor 80-400mm VR at 400mm, natural light

In 2008 I spent several months during the summer watching an American Oystercatcher family from the time the chicks were tiny until one of the chicks became independent. Actually it was until both chicks were independent, one seemed to be ready to leave the parents quite early and I lost track of it after several days, the Oystercatcher chick above stayed close to the parents well into the fall.

There are two species of Oystercatchers in North America, American and Black. I am very familiar with American Oystercatchers but have yet to have my lens on a Black Oystercatcher, I suppose that is something I need to add to my bucket list.

Oystercatchers are monogamous and very territorial, both incubate their young but the female spends more time at it. Oystercatchers have been known to “egg dump” and leave their eggs in the nests of other species like gulls and abandon them to be raised by the other birds. I would love to witness and photograph that because seeing a gull raising an oystercatcher would be fascinating and probably quite amusing too.

Until 1843 Oystercatchers were called “Sea Pie”. What a name.

I like the intimate feeling my image above conveys with my lens a small window into the world of this oystercatcher family. I also like how the prey is shown right in the middle of the juvenile’s open bill.