I was scolded and my ethics were called into question. It wasn’t exactly how I wanted my second Monday of the New Year to begin. But, it is what it is. S*it happens. As a sixty year old, mature person who considers herself logical, reasonable and trustworthy with a good dose of common sense, it was difficult to be called out for unacceptable behavior.
After posting the 30 second clip of a Red-tailed hawk (see post here) [1/12/21 edit: the bird is an immature Red-shouldered Hawk], I received a note from a board member of an ornithological society. She stated, “I gather from your emails that you are relatively new to birding and bird photography,” then provided a link which included the following information for birders: “Be cautious with remotely triggered cameras. Setting a trap around a fresh kill or cache is generally acceptable, but supplying bait or other lure in order to attract an animal is not.” www.audubon.org
It was a reprimand.
Before we put out the frozen Butterball turkey in our north pasture to intentionally lure in birds that I might photograph, I contemplated the implications. I also considered the legality of the activity. Here are some of the thoughts I worked through before we proceeded.
First, my intentions were pure. My blog is not monetized. It’s actually one of the very few blogs I have visited that contains no commercialized attempt to earn money from the contents I upload. I am not a professional photographer. I don’t sell pictures. In fact, I’m a simple right-mouse-click away from anyone stealing my personal photos. I do not even have a watermark on my work with my name, a copyright stamp or a business moniker. Taking photos of flora and fauna on my personal property is a hobby that I choose to share. It is a manifestation of my love for the natural world.
Second, I evaluated the scale of my venture. Then I compared that to the ways that humans influence all sorts of animals in their natural habitat.
In the 2019-2020 White tailed deer hunting seasons in Illinois, 153,174 deer were killed. I assume that at least 80% of those hunters field-dressed their harvest, which is the act of removing all of the guts and leaving them where they lay. That equates to 122,539 deer entrails for animals like Red-tailed hawks to consume. Presuming that a 100 pound animal yields about 40% guts, that’s 49,015 pounds of food offered to wildlife by human hunters all in a very short period of time. I compared that to a twenty pound turkey and thought ours wasn’t an absurd undertaking.
Then, I considered all of the deer and other animals that become road kill (an act of human behavior) that are often consumed by birds of prey. Doing only a very cursory search, I found 2016 data of the “top 10 counties in Illinois for deer collisions with vehicles.” The result was 3341 deer in just ten counties. There are 102 counties in IL. I will let you do the math regarding how much meat and guts that could provide to wildlife. Let us not forget that there are many more species which become fodder for scavengers than just deer! I wouldn’t know where to find the data on how many raccoons, opossum, domestic pets and squirrels are offered up to wild animals via human activity. https://kanecountyconnects.com/2017/11/top-10-illinois-counties-for-deer-collisions/
When I lived in a very large city, it was common to see people tossing all sorts of “processed foods” to birds and other wildlife. I don’t condone it, but when I put my activity on a scale of “how bad is this for wild birds,” I wasn’t terribly worried.
Next, I evaluated the possible impact of my turkey lure versus the prevailing and widely accepted feeding of the song birds that people attract to backyard feeders. “Over 55 million Americans over the age of 16 feed wild birds and spend more than $3 billion a year on bird food.” That is a lot of bird seed. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bird_feeding Do folks who routinely fill their feeders (and the members of bird societies like the one that called me out) really consider the influence they have on natural bird populations?
Recently, there have been bird irruptions of species like the Pine Siskins. You can read an article about it here: https://www.audubon.org/news/-pine-siskin-finch-irruption-fall-2020 Here’s a quote from the article, describing how to spot these birds: “Of course, if you want to make things easy and entertaining, siskins are not shy and will happily show up in droves to feeders with nyjer and sunflower seeds. If you go this route, just be prepared to have your feeders overrun by the birds.”
Now, it’s time for me to reveal a bit of history about myself. In 1982, in the final semester of earning a degree in Biology, I spent seven months in Monte Verde, Costa Rica studying the nest-site displacement of Hoffman’s Woodpeckers by Emerald Toucanets. When I returned, my college mentor pressed for me to share my data and author an article for a scientific journal. I had other plans and began a twenty year career as a professional scientist. The result: my brain is hardwired to question and seek logical, reasonable answers.
When I read things like the article about the Pine Siskin irruption at the Audobon website, I don’t merely nod in agreement. My mind immediately questions. It is who I am. If the natural state of things (a scarcity of food in Canada that these birds need to survive) causes thousands of them to fly as far south as the Gulf of Mexico and beyond, is it really prudent to provide such an unnatural bounty to them (in backyard feeders) when they arrive to our part of the world? Is “Mother Nature” not assuming a big percentage of these birds will perish in order to bring some balance back to their northern environment?
That would be my perspective. For that reason, I find myself asking, why would one of the world’s leading authorities on avian life (Audubon) have written a statement that encourages more people than probably normal, to overfill their feeders and help the Pine Siskins to survive when, most probably, the whole “point” (if there is a natural point of view) is to weed out a subset of the population of the species? I’m just sayin’
From observing the birds in my environment (a fifty acre parcel of land in central Illinois), I was pretty certain that we sustain one pair of Red-tailed hawks. I see them roosting in the largest tree in the northeast corner of the property. I have seen them fly to the largest tree in the southeast corner when I go out to that part of the pasture. I was hoping to catch them on the trail cam at the turkey lure. I’m not ashamed to say that.
I didn’t know what else might show up to the “Butterball Diner.” While we have allowed our property to somewhat “go natural” after using it to support a flock of sheep for several years, most of the land surrounding us is used for cash crops of corn, wheat and soybeans. Our acreage sustains only what it sustains. And, since the land around us isn’t terribly suitable for many species, we didn’t capture a lot of activity via the trail cams we positioned toward the lure. It took several days before a handful of crows were recorded. On that same day, a red-tailed hawk showed up and seemed to have a little interaction with the crows regarding who had dibs on the carcass. We were lucky to catch a pair of hawks one day. Last week, it recorded two Eastern Bluebirds sitting on the branch. Yesterday, it recorded two Blue Jays, both which seemed to be picking scraps off the ground and one Northern Flicker.
So, I’m going to say “sorry, not sorry” regarding putting out the turkey lure on my private property which lured in a few birds that an unobtrusive trail cam recorded. And, one of the reasons I am compelled to that level of “I don’t care” is based on the rude comment that the bird society VP wrote at the bottom of her email to me:
This bird expert ended her reprimand with these words; “It is particularly harmful to the behavior of the birding community that photos obtained in disregard to well-established photographic ethical rules are so broadly shared and promoted. It would be best moving forward if you familiarize yourself with these rules, abide by them and ensure your posts display compliance with them. You would not have tolerated any unethical behavior in the treatment or handling of dogs. The same should apply to birds.”
I have to say that I don’t completely understand the first sentence. How is the “behavior of the birding community” being influenced by some photos? Aren’t we all responsible for our own behavior, regardless of what others around us might do?
But, I must address the intensity of the next sentence. Dang! I haven’t been spoken to that way since –well, I don’t think ever in my life. First, let’s ask if I actually performed an unethical behavior before we go and start comparing taking photos on my personal property to treating dogs in an immoral manner. I think the only way to do that is to understand what may have caused this woman to regard me with such revulsion. Remember, I’ve never met her.
Back in the day I participated in the development and market support of medical diagnostic devices in a Fortune 500 company. The FDA arrived for a routine audit. An auditor called into question a manufacturing packet which contained an “exception.” The Technical Specialist in charge of the product brought forth documentation which supported the variance and showed that the product was not compromised. The auditor replied, “Science is not compliance.” The regulatory specialists in the room smiled and nodded in agreement. We scientists cocked our heads in wonderment. It’s all a matter of perspective.
Regulations, like the ones spewed at me by this individual, are useful until they don’t apply to the situation. Then, to many people like myself, they seem to defy logic, are unreasonable and inapplicable. There are people who like rules but even more so, they love to enforce them. I believe the radical chastising I received from this complete stranger fits into that realm.
But, let’s get back to that first sentence about how my actions would negatively affect an entire community of “birders.” I have exactly 88 followers on my blog. That leaves very little chance for me to completely corrupt an entire community of thousands of people. While I do share the links to some of my posts with a few birder groups, even if one of my posts were to “go viral,” I am a firm believer in the idea that we are all responsible for our own behavior, and that includes how we might react to something we see (even a photo of a pretty bird.) If I had such power over people as the author of the email suggests, I would have already put it to good use and I would now be living on my own, private island in the Caribbean equipped with a helicopter pad and private pool boy.
When I created this blog I decided that I was going to just speak from my heart, unencumbered by the need to be scientifically accurate with what I post. I’m sure that makes some people believe that I’m not the brightest bulb in the box. I spent most of my life holding myself to exacting standards at work and even in my hobbies. I no longer want to be so hampered by perfectionism. When I posted the video of the Red-tailed Hawk interacting with the piece of plastic, I could have stated that it was perhaps a youngster that was experimenting with a new object it found. I could have said that I thought it might be a cautious animal that employed bite-first-ask-question-later approach to a novel situation. But, I chose the more human and humorous approach of suggesting the bird was attempting to keep its snack bar tidy.
Perhaps my frivolity makes me appear weak and easy prey for this individual who so strongly suggested “It would be best moving forward if you familiarize yourself with these rules, abide by them and ensure your posts display compliance with them.” Who does she think she is? Really? It’s outside of my understanding that she felt a need to wield such a weapon of words towards me.
I’m one person. I live in the middle of nowhere. I drive around my personal property in a golf cart, and yes sometimes that makes birds fly away. I scare the Great Blue Heron every time I drive by the pond. But, he does a big loop and lands right back where he had been standing. My neighbors, who by the way feed most of the folks who live in cities, do not alter their behavior on their farms in order to reduce the stress on wildlife. But, most of them hunt, and many of them toss the guts out for the birds and other critters and some of them take advantage of the situation and take lovely pictures of those animals.
I’m not going to apologize for offering bird seed on occasion (although, I do feel that I am more prudent than many people are about that endeavor because, as I have routinely observed them over the course of many months, I don’t want to present a negative influence on the populations of native birds that live around me.)
I am also not going to apologize for putting a turkey out in the north pasture and capturing a few images of the critters that stop by for a bite. I do not believe that I am going to disrupt the species by offering less “road kill” than it could find on a five mile stretch of the nearby interstate – and where it stands the risk of being killed itself by a passing vehicle.
I do not see the difference between our turkey lure and offering suet, which is less of a naturally occurring food source than a dead bird.