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. But one professional bird photographer did just that with his workshop group. See the link. 

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 please have a look at the Principles of Birding Ethics published by the American Birding Association.


  1. Ilana DeBare March 9, 2014 at 11:23 pm

    Great advice. We’ve posted a link on our Facebook page.

  2. Bryce Robinson March 9, 2014 at 11:09 pm

    Excellent guidelines Mia. I’m glad you’ve outlined this for folks.

  3. Patty Chadwick March 9, 2014 at 3:53 pm

    I’m glad someone ethical, knowledgeable, intelligent and caring is speaking up for those who can’t…they need all the compassionate help they can get…they certainly need a voice…Thank you for being that…

  4. Elephant's Child March 9, 2014 at 1:12 pm

    Thank you. I often think that people would be more careful if they thought about how they would feel if their own ‘nests’ were invaded.

  5. Jane Chesebrough March 9, 2014 at 9:57 am

    Good timing and well said. Thank you Mia.

  6. Montanagirl March 9, 2014 at 7:19 am

    Well said.

Comments are closed.