The Rules, Etiquette, and Ethics of Birding (Hint: Don’t Be A Jerk!)

I have a question for you.

Who is most disrespectful or annoying birder you have ever been around? (Warning: If you can’t think of anyone then it could be you!)

Did they talk too loud?  Or maybe they never stopped talking? Did they scare away every single bird?

What did they do that makes them stand out?

Whether you have been birding for 50 years or just starting, it’s important to understand some of the unwritten but commonly accepted bird watching rules and etiquette.

Keep reading for a list of 14 different bird watching guidelines, rules, etiquette and ethics principles.

The last thing you want to do is show up, make everyone mad and be labeled a jerk!

For example, many years ago when I learned how to golf I also had to learn some of this golf etiquette.

  • I still remember the looks I received as I was joking and talking while someone was swinging! This is a huge faux pas in golf. You are supposed to let the golfer concentrate on hitting his ball. Think how quiet golf on TV is.
  • The chastising I received for walking in front of someone’s putting line was even worse. Supposedly stepping on the ground between the golf ball and hole could disrupt the putt and make it go off course. (For the record, I quit golf a few years ago. I prefer to be hiking and looking for birds in my spare time, even though golf courses were a great place to spot birds.)

I couldn’t find a comprehensive guide to all of the rules, etiquette, and ethics of birding available online.

There were some decent articles here and there but not a “one-stop shop” resource. I tried to combine all of the available information along with what I have learned myself.

Before we begin, I want to mention that…

Some Rules Were Meant to Be Broken:

Birding EthicsSometimes there are long-standing traditions that are just silly. Having some new energy from beginners is a good thing and can challenge the way things have “always been done.

I didn’t include anything that I don’t personally agree with or follow.

For example, some “elitists” birders think it’s a cardinal sin to pull out a field guide while you are birding. It shows a sign of weakness. They would want you to write down all of your field notes and then try and identify the bird later and not use your field guide as a crutch.

While I appreciate the sentiment, one of my favorite parts of birding is the high that I get making a correct identification in the field! For now, I will keep using my field guides apps while bird watching!

The Golden Rule(s):

#1: Don’t Be A Jerk

Etiquette and EthicsI almost ended this post right now.

Almost everything that follows can be traced back to this simple mantra. Everyone makes mistakes, but it’s easy to forgive and teach somebody that is respectful and nice.

Jerks are an entirely different story. Everyone hopes that these people get stung by a bee, pooped on by a bird or touch Poison Ivy.

This simple rule applies to everything you may encounter on the trail.

  • Don’t be an asshole to:
    • Birds and other wildlife.
    • The environment.
    • Other people: Including other birders, hikers, bikers, etc.

Seriously, just don’t be a jerk and you probably won’t have any problems!

#2: Don’t Forget Rule #1

I’m sorry. I couldn’t resist paying homage to one of my favorite movies of all time (Fight Club).

But seriously, don’t be a jerk! It’s simple!

Below is the movie clip I am referencing from Fight Club…..

Ok, enough of this silliness. Let’s get back to being (kind of) serious.

Don’t Be a Jerk to the Birds:

The next set of rules focus on being respectful to the birds.

#3: Don’t Chase Birds, Especially When Agitated

This seems like common sense and very easy to nod your head and agree with the above statement.

That is before your birding trip begins!

Bird Watching RulesIt is easy to get caught up in the moment of seeing a new or rare bird. As the bird flies or wanders away and out of view, it’s normal not to feel satisfied and want to see more and get closer.

This is when you need to have some self-discipline and think about the bird and not yourself. Stop and ask yourself some questions:

Does this bird want me chasing it through the woods? Is it terrified? Is it making lots of alarm calls and paying very close attention to my every move?

When a bird becomes stressed it can cause all sorts of problems. Try to imagine that the bird you just chased away is exhausted now and can’t escape the predator lurking around the corner, who was just waiting for some idiot human to get them an easy meal!

Also, during spring and fall migration some of the birds you see may have just flown thousands of miles and need to rest and eat, or they will die. Think about this before you chase that small and beautiful Blackburnian Warbler all through the forest.

Always remember: It’s called Bird Watching, not Bird Hunting or Bird Chasing!

#4: Be Mindful Using Your Phone to Play Audio Recordings

This is a tricky topic and a bit of a slippery slope.

I would be lying if I told you I never used an audio recording from my phone to try and attract a bird’s attention to come out of the brush.

Bird Watching EthicsBut it all comes down to using common sense.

Remember that many birds use calls and songs to defend territories and attract mates. Just imagine if you play an audio recording of one of these sounds.

How do you think that bird is going to react?

Probably in an aggressive way that will use up precious energy and resources. And on many popular birding trails, there could be dozens of people walking by every day. If they all played audio to the birds they saw, some of the birds could be spending all of their time and energy defending their territory and trying to attract mates that are just fake sounds on the phone.

This could have some damaging repercussions for these birds!

#5: Do Not Approach or Agitate a Bird Sitting on a Nest

We have all been there. It’s inevitable as a bird watcher.

Rules of Bird WatchingYou are walking through the woods or a field very quietly. Your eyes are to the sky trying to find the next bird.

Then all of a sudden right next to you there is a loud alarm call, and an American Robin or Northern Cardinal or some other bird flies off their nest into a nearby tree. The barrage of alarm calls suddenly fills the air, and you see their eggs or small babies in the nest.

I hate when this happens. I immediately feel terrible for scaring a bird off their nest and try to slowly back away, praying that the bird will calm down and return to the nest quickly.

Please be extremely mindful and careful around birds when they are sitting in their nest.

They are very sensitive to disturbances. Trust me; they don’t enjoy humans trying to get as close as possible to make an identification or take a picture.

Seriously, what if the bird got so shaken up that they abandon the nest or a baby falls out prematurely?

What I have observed the most is people trying to get too close to raptor nests. Specifically, Bald Eagle nests in my neck of the woods. Once a location is known it seems that everyone has to see it and take lots of pictures. I have even seen their positions published in our local newspaper! Imagine all of the clowns that show up to that unfortunate eagle’s nest.

Some of the responsibility of not having interested but uneducated people show up at locals nests falls squarely on the shoulders of us birders.

If you discover a nest of an interesting, rare or sensitive species, please keep this your little secret. Specifically, don’t report the nest’s exact location right away to eBird or go posting all about the spot on Facebook. I got this tip from listening to Sharon Stiteler (aka The Bird Chick). She recommended waiting a few months until the chicks have fledged before reporting the nest to eBird.

Don’t Be a Jerk to Other People:

#6: Don’t Trespass On Other People’s Property

Don't TrespassThis seems like an easy rule to follow.

But then a beautiful Snowy Owl flies down from the North and decides to hang out on private property with clear “No Trespassing” signs.

Please don’t give all birders a bad name. Only go on someone’s property with permission. I know that by just asking most people are more than happy to comply and will be interested in what you are looking for.

#7: Put Your Phone on Silent or Airplane Mode.

We have all been there.

Birding Rules - Phone on SilentYou are sitting in a meeting, church or a movie and a cell phone start ringing obnoxiously.

After panicking that it’s my cell phone and happily realizing that it’s not, I scan the room with my “disappointed eyes” for the person who is scrambling and rummaging in their pockets to turn their phone off.

Now imagine a group of bird watchers, silently watching a Cerulean Warbler who has magically landed in front of everyone. Everyone is excited and starting to take pictures.

Then someone’s cell phone starts blaring “Party in the USA,” and the little warbler flies away to a group with better taste in music.

Trust me; you won’t be the most popular person in your group if you don’t silence your phone. While you’re at it, try not to take any phone calls or check social media either.

Focus on enjoying your time in nature.

#8: Try to Blend into the Environment

Birds don’t like bright and obnoxious colors. It makes them uncomfortable and its harder to get close if they can see you coming from 2 miles away.

Leave the white, yellow and red clothing at home. You will have much better luck wearing drab and dull colors that help to blend into the natural surroundings.

Don’t talk too loud or move to fast. Try to remember what your Kindergarten teacher taught you about using your “inside voices.” It’s not natural for birds to hear yelling and see people walking quickly toward them, probably tripping over every stick and rock along the way.

#9: Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Other Birders What They Have Seen

I am an introverted person.

Naturally, I prefer to do a lot of things by myself and find solace in birding and hiking alone in the woods. It’s always my chance to recharge, enjoy nature and think.

This can create some challenges when birding. Two heads (or 4 eyes?) are much better than one, and this is no truer than with birding. I have found that birding with others leads typically to many more birds being seen.

A great solution has been getting the guts just to ask other birders what they have seen today.

For you extroverted folks, I’m sure this seems natural! For introverts, it’s like getting a tooth pulled!

But the rewards for asking usually are very good, and you can get a bounty of information about what has been seen on the trail ahead.

Birding and Bird Watching RulesFor example, just last Saturday I passed by a man who was looking for birds. We struck up a conversation and found out he had just completed a “Big Year” and saw 650 species!! All while working full time. Not only was this conversation fascinating but he also showed me an Eastern Kingbird that was just perched on the trail and pointed out the song of a Willow Flycatcher that hadn’t shown himself yet.

Without saying hello and asking what he has seen, this pleasant interaction would have been missed.

One final warning to Extroverts: If you meet one of us introverts out while birding and we don’t seem willing to talk, please also be respectful of these wishes and don’t think we are trying to be rude. Many of us just get weird when talking to other humans that we don’t know. We like our alone time, especially while birding!

#10: Include Non-birders and Children

This website has a plan to save the world.

The core of my plan is to expose more people to the excitement of bird watching. If we had more people who were passionate about seeing warblers during spring migration or heading out at 9 pm in the middle of winter to hear Great Horned Owls, I am confident that we could make this world a better place.

Birders naturally want to save more of the environment, protect habitat and migration routes and overall just be outside more!

Birdwatching Etiquette and EthicsAnyways, my plan starts with finding more passionate bird watchers. And that begins with introducing more people, especially children to the fun.

Next time you head out into the woods, try to invite someone along who has never gone with you. Bring an extra pair of binoculars for them. I have found just telling people I am trying to see “20 species of bird” today on our hike gets them interested and they naturally want to help. They usually have no idea that there are so many birds around!

Lastly, be sure to tell other people about what you are looking at, especially kids. I know owls always do an excellent job of grabbing everyone’s attention! Anyone that passes by will already be curious what you are staring intently at through your binoculars; they don’t want to miss something cool.

This is just human instinct; think if there was a crowd of people at the mall. Everyone immediately wants to know what is going on over there. This same rule applies to bird watching. Everyone wants to see what you are looking at!

So next time you spot a Screech Owl, try to find some kids to (quietly) show! Not only will it make their day, but we just went from creepy guy with binoculars to really cool wildlife expert!!

#11: Be Especially Mindful When Birding in Groups

I have found that birding in groups can be a lot of fun and enjoyable. It’s one of my favorite bird watching tips:

Rules for Birding in GroupsThere is no faster and better way to learn your birds then observing and learning from a local expert. Instead of staring at your field guide and flipping back and forth between birds, there is someone there who can explain what you are looking at and the subtle field marks that identify the bird.

Birding in a group also means there are many more eyes scanning the brush and trees and ears listening. You will almost always see more birds by going with a team.

But birding with a group brings on a new set of challenges. Many times, you won’t know many of the other people in your group, so it pays to have some manners.

Nobody wants to bird with a jerk!

Here are a few simple rules for birding in groups:

  • Be aware of where you are standing.
    • For example, someone has just set up a spotting scope, and you stand directly in front of them. There may only be one great spot to stand to see the bird. Be patient and wait your turn to stand there.
  • Bring your equipment, especially binoculars.
    • I have found most people don’t mind sharing their stuff a time or two, but if every 2 minutes you need to use my binoculars to see a bird, it starts to get somewhat annoying. Don’t ruin someone’s day because you came unprepared. This includes packing the appropriate clothing for the weather and bringing enough water and snacks.
  • Saying “Please” and “Thank You” still go a long way.
    • If you are a beginning birder and need some help, almost everyone will be willing. Just be respectful and kind and don’t act like your entitled to someone’s attention! If there is a guide, make sure to stop and thank them for the day. I have never guided a group, but it looks like hard work!

Don’t Be a Jerk to the Habitat:

“Take Only Pictures, Leave Only Footprints.”

I’m sure you have heard this quote often or seen it in a picture somewhere. I don’t care if it’s overused! The meaning applies to birders heading into a potentially sensitive habitat.

#12: Stay on Trails and Paths.

This should be an easy rule to follow, but often it is not! Especially when the Baltimore Orioles that you can hear but just can’t see are on the other side of that tree across the field!

Etiquette of birdingThe problem with straying off the trail is that it can be disastrous both for you and the birds.

I am guilty of wandering off the trail in the past and am not proud of this. But you know what usually happens? Nothing good.

First, I am almost guaranteed to get poison ivy or rip my legs up on some random bush with thorns. There is also a good chance that I am just going to fall at some point in mud or break a piece of equipment. There is always a possibility that I could get lost.

And since there is no more trail to walk on I am no longer a silent ninja walking slowly and quietly, stalking my next bird. I have now become a loud and obnoxious elephant trouncing through the woods, scaring away the birds that I was trying to get closer too!


Second, leaving the trail is also not great for birds.

You run the risk of stepping on a nest or stressing out a bird that thinks it is getting chased. Many environments are susceptible to human interference, and that little bush you just stepped on may take years to grow to that size again.

#13: Pack Out What You Pack In. Leave No Trace

This is a simple rule: Don’t throw wrappers, empty bottled water or other garbage anywhere but a trash can.

Birdwatching Rules

On second thought,  why are you still using bottled water?

Your laziness in not buying a reusable water bottle means that plastic water container is going to sit in a landfill for 10,000 years.

My preference is a Nalgene bottle, and I take it almost everywhere we go. It sits on my kitchen counter at all times, filled with water.

#14: Not Everyone Thinks Your Dog is That Cute

Before I ruffle any feathers, let me give my full disclosure.

ethics of birding rules of birding

I have a dog that is spoiled beyond belief.

She eats beef fit for human consumption. Chloe sleeps on our pillows at night and goes to work with me a few times per week. I try to take her hiking and birding with me as much as possible.

Just remember that nobody else thinks your dog is that cute. Especially when he is “defecating” on the trail, and you didn’t bring a bag to clean it up!  Or when she is romping through the woods like a bat out of hell, scaring every other creature away.

A lot of bird watchers would give you a very strict rule to not bring your dog while birding at all. The risk is too high to scare away the birds. There is some truth here, but I can’t recommend because as mentioned previously, I do bring Chloe from time to time.

Keep in mind a few simple rules for your dog:

  • Stay on a leash. Don’t let them run through the woods scaring all the birds away.
  • Clean up after your pet.
  • Make sure they are trained. Don’t let your dog jump on others. Especially with muddy paws!

What are the birding rules and etiquette that you observe?

One reason that I love bird watching is that almost everyone is friendly, fun and willing to help a newbie. The only competition comes from the friendly fun of keeping a “life list.”

For me, the most fun comes when everyone can see a bird together and marvel at the unique beauty and personality of that bird.

Most of the rules, ethics, and etiquette that go along with birding can be learned by just showing respect to the birds, nature and each other. If you take nothing else from this article, just remember.

Don’t be a jerk!

Simple enough!

What did I miss? Please use the comments below.

What are the bird watching rules you follow? What birding etiquette do you see ignored? Do you agree with the ethics of birding I wrote about?

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  2. You’re welcome! I think you will enjoy watching birds. I love getting out in the woods and is a form of meditation for me. Just curious, would you recommend that movie?

  3. This is not a common practice, but over the past couple years I have seen people using green laser pointers to help point out birds. I am sure there are right ways and wrong ways to use these in the field. However, more often than not I have seen them scare off birds and it just seems like a cheap fast way to get people on birds. Instead of being patient and talking to people to get them on a bird in the high tree on the right near 3 o’clock. Anyway, not a fan of laser pointer they are used by assholes.

    1. That’s interesting. I have not seen anyone doing that yet. I’d be curious to hear from a bird guide that uses laser pointers and their opinion on why they do it. I agree, it feels a bit like cheating and hopefully does not hurt the birds in any way.