There are many guidelines for ethical nature photography on the internet (see below). The common theme is that taking great nature photographs should never be at the expense of the subject. 

Birding Code of Ethics

I have borrowed from these guidelines (thanks!) and put together my own code of ethics. Some photographers may regard these rules as unnecessarily strict (eg no call playback unless for scientific/conservation purposes), but they should ask themselves, assuming everyone does it, what is the cumulative impact likely to be?  And always remember, as a bird photographer, you do not have any greater right to approach or disturb birds than does an ordinary member of the public.

Respect their spatial needs

View birds from a safe distance for both you and them. If the bird interrupts its behaviour (resting, feeding, etc.), then you are too close and must distance yourself.

Don't force an action

Don't force an action, crowd, pursue, prevent escape, make deliberate noises to distract, startle or harass birds. This is stressful and wastes valuable energy in needless flight. The impact is cumulative.

Don't feed or leave food (baiting) for wildlife

Habituation due to handouts can result in disease (poor health because inevitably the bird is not eating its native food) or even death of that bird and injury to you (I remember after the Queensland floods a warning being sent out to people not to try and feed a hungry Southern Cassowary!).

Avoid using Call Playback for attracting a species in order to photograph them

The use of call playback can distress some species and may disrupt feeding and/or breeding activity. It is worth noting here that the use of call playback is (apparently) banned in Germany unless a special permit is obtained for scientific studies.  Studies have indicated that call playback can have a negative effect on species: See Simulated Birdwatchers’ Playback Affects the Behavior of Two Tropical Birds.

Keep habitat disturbance to a minimum

Stay on roads, trails, and paths where they exist and NEVER enter areas designated off-limit by the local wildlife/nature conservation authorities.  This is particularly true in southern Australia where our native vegetation is under dire threat from the introduced plant disease Phytophthora cinnamomi, commonly known as dieback. In Western Australia, over 50% of our rare or endangered flora species are susceptible to dieback (which affects 40% of native WA plant species). It has already devastated the once floristically rich Stirling Range National Park (yes, it still looks beautiful, but it actually has lost almost half of its plant species to dieback).

It is primarily spread by human activity. The Western Australian Department of Parks and Wildlife will often close roads during wet weather when the risk of spreading this pathogen is at its highest. For rare birds, such as the Western Ground Parrot, the loss of these plant species is likely to have a devastating effect on the remaining population which is already struggling to overcome the impact of feral predators (cats and foxes) and bushfires.

For more information on dieback and its impact in Western Australia, see Department of Parks and Wildlife, Dieback Working Group).

Avoid nesting animals

I never photograph nesting birds or publish such images.

Photographers MUST keep an appropriate distance from nesting birds.

Nesting is the most critical and stressful time in a bird's life.

It is vitally important that photographers keep an appropriate distance from nesting birds so as to ensure that they do not:

  • accidentally, or deliberately, cause damage to the nest or nest site;
  • cause nest desertion or stress to the nesting adults or nestlings;
  • attract predators to the nest site; and/or
  • remain at a distance from the nest site, which elicits a behavioural response from the nesting bird(s) - such as ‘broken wing’ response or the nesting bird not returning immediately to the nest.

In any event, photographers must NOT, in relation to nesting birds:

  • damage or trample vegetation that results in exposing a nest;
  • startle a bird as that may cause it to accidentally break or eject the eggs or cause the premature eruption of young from the nest;
  • ‘garden’ the area around the nest by removing branches or other objects which may block a clear view of the nest thus increasing the exposure of the nesting birds to adverse weather and to predation;
  • modify the nest or its approaches in order to force the bird into a more photogenic position;
  • linger too long in the bird’s core territory;
  • visit nests in early mornings, dusk or inclement weather when any desertion by a parent may result in the eggs/young becoming cold;
  • use call playback in the vicinity of a nesting bird which causes the bird to leave the nest to respond to the playback;
  • use flash on a nesting bird;
  • show undue attention to an otherwise well-camouflaged nest (eg birds nesting on the beach or in dense foliage);
  • walk to the nest and back along the same path, leaving a dead-end trail; and/or
  • act contrary to the law (I have conducted a review of the legislation surrounding national parks and reserves in Australia which is relevant to photographers. Please take the time to read: click here.  



Report rare nesting birds only to the authorities

Before advertising the presence of a rare bird, evaluate the potential for disturbance to the bird, its surroundings, and other people in the area, and proceed only if access can be controlled, disturbance minimized, and permission has been obtained from private land-owners. The sites of rare nesting birds should be divulged only to the proper conservation authorities (eg Night Parrot, Western Ground Parrot). See also article: Rare Bird Sightings: Share or Shut-up? 

Keep any spotlight on a bird to seconds, not minutes

Use lower intensity spotlights, red filters and direct the light to the side of the subject rather than directly into its eyes.

If you enjoy photographing birds, you have a duty to do something to ensure their survival too

If we don’t, who else in our community will?  To find out more about our threatened birds: See  Australia's Endangered Birds. To donate your money or your time, go to: 

  • BirdLife Australia (which runs the Carnaby's Black-Cockatoo Recovery Project, Orange-bellied Parrot Recovery, Painted Snipe Project, Bittern Project, Shorebirds 2020, Beach-nesting birds and the Threatened Birds Network, among others). 
  • Friends of the Western Ground Parrot (premier group responsible for raising money to help save the critically endangered Western Ground Parrot from extinction).

Further Information/Guidelines 

For more information on ethical birding: