Wednesday, September 21, 2011

It's not just a game

Steller's Jay. Very bright. Very wily. Fast learner.
Sitting on my friend’s deck the other afternoon it was hard to say who was exploiting whom.

Craig was tossing peanuts to the Steller’s Jays and I was taking pictures. The bolder birds were picking up nuts and weighing them before putting them down to check the next one.  Half-a-dozen nut thieves were lurking on low-hanging branches, poised to swoop down if Bird #1 took its eye off the prize.  The challenge for Bird #1 was not to lose the nut it had just checked, in case it was better than the one it was about to pick up.

Everyone was having a high time – Craig, the Jays, the nut-thieves and me, taking pictures.

Getting great close-ups is easy with the new digital SLRs and zoom lenses.  Thousands of people are taking up bird photography, amassing big photo collections. For some it is strictly a game with no purpose but to keep score and pile up images.

Bird #1 weighing the options.
That’s sad because even a hobby as “harmless” as photography can do more damage than good if we don’t know or care much about birds. If my only objective is to get a better photo than the next guy, then what’s to stop me from tromping across sensitive wetlands and wildflowers, plowing off the trail, approaching too close to nests, interfering with the young, using an audio device to lure birds from shelter, spreading disease with a dirty feeding station, and stressing and flushing birds into the air? That’s exploitation, and for no better reason than sheer ego.

Craig offers many ideas to make bird photography more enjoyable and meaningful. Rule 1 is a no-brainer: Love the bird.  Here are some more of his thoughtful ideas:

  • Learn what birds eat and how they hunt. Learn how they raise their young, where they migrate and what habitat they need.
  • Take photos that shed light on their behavior and diet.
  • Share your knowledge and photos with others so they may also learn.
  • Put your best photos into a presentation and give a talk about birds.
  • Join your local Audubon chapter.
  • Let Audubon or other educational groups use your best images.
  • Take an ornithology class online.
  • Create bird-friendly wildlife habitat in your yard, with natural foods they like, free of pesticides.
  • Maintain some brush and wildlife snags.
  • Support organizations that protect and restore habitat.
  • Keep bird feeders and bird baths clean.
  • Keep a respectful distance – don’t stress the birds or any wildlife. 
The more we know, the more we care, and the more fun everything gets.


    1. Great photos of the Steller Jay, Dan. It's a beautiful bird. And what a fun story about the jay weighing the peanut to see which was the best. Thanks for sharing Craig's ideas about birds and photography.

      I was pruning my yard today and I found two old nests, one in a sword fern and the other in a mugo pine. I'm guessing the nests were for the white crowned sparrows that kept me company in the garden all spring.

    2. Great photos, indeed. More important, a good reminder about how easy it is to love nature to death. It's hard to stay pure, but amateur photographers and professional film-makers should keep this in mind at all times when in the field.

    3. I enjoyed your article, as usual! It's fun to sit out on Craig and Joy's "wildlife preserve!" And the advice is all good, especially the advice to not use chemicals. Nature works with us when we give it a chance. Thank you!