Photographers Don't (Always) Harm Bird Nesting Behavior

Predators are less likely to attack photographed nests.

birds feeding babies in nest
Sue Hsu / Getty Images

The newfound interest in bird-watching and bird photography might be great for human mental health and social distancing. But scientists have been concerned about how all this up-close observation is affecting birds in their nests.

New research finds they didn’t have to worry as much as they thought.

Birdwatching has been booming for several years. At the start of the pandemic, many people developed a new appreciation for nature, often setting up bird feeders and bird houses or heading out into the great outdoors to see which winged creatures they could spot or photograph.

There was a 40% increase or more comparing many months in 2020 to the years before. And sales of feeders, baths, binoculars, and field guides have spiked.

Audubon has lauded the new interest, saying it’s a great way to practice social distancing and being in nature has long been proven to benefit mental health.

However, researchers have been worried all that close proximity to humans would make birds nervous and less likely to care for their babies.

Predators and Feeding

Scientists at Guangxi University in China noticed a sharp increase in the number of people visiting Nonggang Nature Reserve in southern China. More bird photographers, in particular, had started going to the area after the Nonggang babbler was first described there in 2008.

“These photographers were typically setting up their cameras close to the nests of a wide variety of bird species, as they knew that the parents would either be brooding their eggs or returning to feed their young,” researcher Xiaocai Tan, an ornithologist and Ph.D. candidate at Guangxi University, said in a statement. “This gave them the perfect opportunity to take great, and even award-winning photos.”

Tan and her team spent a year doing fieldwork, checking 277 bird nests that included 42 species. They were studying the effect that photographers have on nesting habits, particularly how often parents fed their babies and the impact it had on predators in nests.

They knew that some birds, mammals, and reptiles were preying on the nest occupants, killing about 60% or more of the nestlings in the area, including those of the Nonggang babbler which is characterized as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Researchers found having the attention of photographers was a good thing for survival. The nests that were photographed had a predation rate of 13.3% compared to nests that were unphotographed, which had a much higher rate of 62.9%.

“In other words, the presence of the photographers increased the survival rate of the bird nestlings,” Tan explained. “Interestingly, their presence had little effect—positive or negative—on the feeding rates in those nests.”

Parents feed their offspring the same whether they are in the spotlight or not.

The results were published in the journal Avian Research.

Caution Still Warranted

The findings were the opposite of what most scientists had expected.

According to Aiwu Jiang, the investigator who led the study, this finding is totally contrary to what most scientists had expected. He says: “Like a scarecrow, the presence of photographers seems to scare the nest predators away,” said Jiang, the investigator who led the study. “Other research we’ve conducted in the same area shows that the presence of traffic noise can draw away birds’ mammalian predators.”

But photographers shouldn’t take this as a license to disturb nests.

The National Audubon Society offers guidelines for ethical bird photography, saying, “Showing a sincere respect for birds and the places they need to thrive must come before getting that perfect photo or footage.”

Among many tips, Audubon suggests using telephoto lenses, relying very little on flash, and avoiding drones. “If your approach causes a bird to flush (fly or run away) or change its behavior, you’re too close.”

Jiang adds, “Although this finding suggests that photography has a positive impact on the successful breeding of birds, it doesn’t mean that we are encouraging photographers to visit nest sites—there needs to be further assessment of other aspects of nesting, and other kinds of stress responses, before the total effect of bird photography can be understood.”