Sharing Isn't Always Caring: Why Keeping Locations to Yourself is Okay

Wednesday, March 10, 2021
Picture this: you're driving along a rural road, you spot a bird about 15ft up in a tree that you don't recognize. You pull over a distance away and have a look through your binoculars - to your surprise, it's a rare Northern Hawk Owl! Of course, the first thing you want to do is tell your friends and family about it. Maybe post about it on social media. Maybe add it to your eBird list. Maybe message a few of your online birding pals who you know would love to see it, too. Soon you start getting messages from other birders in the area wondering where you saw it, so you give out the general location you saw it in. No harm in sharing the joy with others, right? Unfortunately, we tend to be naive in our thinking that our fellow man will be respectful while observing wildlife - and that naivety can sometimes lead to catastrophic outcomes for the wildlife involved. 

Northern Hawk Owl in Southern Ontario

I don't want to come off as bitter in this blog, but in my short time birding I have seen enough harassment, habitat destruction, and - for lack of a better word - stupidity, to make me feel that way. There's nothing new about wanting to share locations of exciting wildlife finds. As nature enthusiasts (or just humans in general) it makes sense that we would want others to share in that excitement with us and experience it for themselves. But we also need to be aware that sharing locations often does not equate to anything good for the animal, and can come with severe consequences like harassment, flushing, habitat destruction, nest abandonment, and even death. 

Owls are a prime example of this. Each winter, certain species of owls such as Snowy, Northern Saw-whet, Long-eared, and sometimes Boreal, Great Gray, and Northern Hawk Owls migrate to Ontario until breeding season begins again in the north. These species are highly sought after by both novice & advanced birders, and nature photographers. Because most of these owls tend to remain in a tight territory for the duration of their stay, once a location is advertised it is quite easy for the spot to become inundated with eager onlookers - and some pretty unethical ones, too. So what is considered harassment? Generally speaking, anything that causes an animal stress, alters their behaviour in a negative way, prohibits hunting or properly caring for young, or causes physical harm, would be considered harassment. Some forms of harassment owls and other wildlife are typically subjected to include crowding, chasing, flushing (making a bird fly), playback of other animals to draw in or startle a certain species, whistling or making loud noises to get them to at the camera, shaking trees or branches, using flash on nocturnal species, baiting owls with pet store rodents, throwing rocks, snow, sticks, etc. to get the animal's attention. Chasing is one of the most common issues when it comes to birds. Chasing can cause a bird to fly out of it's territory and into another's, it can quickly lead a bird to become too exhausted to hunt or forage for food, or if near a roadway could cause the bird to fly into oncoming traffic. Believe me when I say, the above are not hyperbolic statements. In my mere 10 years of birding, I have witnessed each of the above acts being committed. And if I'm being honest, I have committed some myself in the early days when I didn't know any better. Which brings me to my next point that is, not everyone who causes an animal stress knows that they're doing so. But the fact remains that they are doing the same damage as someone know is intentionally doing so for personal gain. 

Common Loon sitting on nest by Justin Hoffman Outdoors

Issues with location sharing go beyond owls. Nesting birds are another popular subject targeted by birders and nature photographers. If you've ever been near a nest of robins in your own yard, you've probably noticed that the parent birds will remain in the nest as long as possible, only fleeing when you (aka. a predator) have come too close for comfort. The same is true for most bird species. Parents want to stay in the nest to protect their eggs or nestlings whenever possible. When nesting birds are frequently intruded upon by humans, it can cause them to repeatedly leave their eggs or nestlings, making them vulnerable to the weather, predators, or starvation due to the parents being unable provide an adequate amount of food  Some birds will even abandon a nesting site entirely, leaving their young to perish. Other animals and wildlife phenomena that are at higher risk of harassment include any elusive or rare species such as bears, wolves, fishers, and more, and animals with abnormal characteristics such as albinism or leucism. Some species (particularly our reptile & amphibians) are even captured and sold in the pet trade. Keep in mind, that any animal whether rare or common can be subjects of harassment or worse. For example, in 2018 there was an incident in Vermont where a moose drowned after fleeing a crowd of people trying to take photos of it. While this wasn't due to a location being shared, it is the same tale of what can and has happened to many other animals if their location is known by the masses. 

There are times when sharing locations is completely necessary. Community science projects like Project FeederWatch, Global Big Day, Great Backyard Bird Count, and more, rely on citizen input for research purposes. In these cases your information is not shared with the public, and is solely used for the purpose of scientific studies to preserve species and their habitats. I know what you're thinking at this point, if we don't share these experiences with others, how will they learn to love nature like we do? That's a fair question, and there's no definitive answer. I think there are certainly times when sharing a location of something is acceptable, like if it's someone you know to be ethical and can keep it to themselves, or if you can personally accompany that person to see what you've found, then by all means. I have a very small circle of people who I will share info with because I know they are trustworthy and have the animal's best interests at heart. I receive messages from lots of birders asking me where I saw certain species, and I respectfully decline giving them the information. Not because I'm selfish and want that all to myself, I simply believe that we are stewards of the earth and need to do what we can to protect the wild lives that live on it.

Baltimore Oriole at nest

So, when it comes to sharing locations of sensitive subjects, use your best judgement and remember that it is okay to just say no. If you'd like to learn more about how to be an ethical photographer, check out this straight-to-the-point blog by Ontario Parks.

Happy trails & ethical wildlife watching!
- Shayna

2 comments:

  1. Excellent article, spot on in your thoughts and conclusions. And I say that as someone who really, really wants to share the location of a new raptor nest but probably wont't.

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    1. Thanks for reading Peter! I hear ya...it's always fun to share sightings :)

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