There is an online discussion currently underway among my fellow wildlife photographers regarding the ethics of baiting or feeding wildlife in order to photograph them. In my article “Photographing Wildlife Part II”, which was published in the May/June 2016 issue of Life in the Finger Lakes magazine, I wrote: “Using bait to attract wildlife is an ethical issue among wildlife photographers and every professional photography organization that I know of is opposed to the practice. Biologists warn that feeding wildlife leads to habituation, which can cause an animal to lose its instinctive fear of people and develop an unnatural dependency on handouts. Baiting can also result in safety issues for the photographer, or even worse, the demise of a wild animal that has become aggressive.”
But does that apply to feeding birds? In “Photographing Wildlife Part I”, which was published in the magazine’s previous March/April issue, I wrote this: “Don’t expect to buy a camera today and be photographing big game animals tomorrow unless you live near Yellowstone National Park or someplace similar. In order to practice with your new equipment, I recommend that you start small. Feeding wild birds is a good beginning and something you can do at home on a minimal budget.”
Now realizing that my advice was contradictory at best or confusing at the very least, I decided to research the pros and cons of feeding birds. The first place I went was to the Audubon Society’s web page http://www.audubon.org/news/to-feed-or-not-feed, which starts out by saying that 40% of Americans regularly feed birds and then goes on to list a host of conditions that deal mostly with the spread of disease and parasites among a concentration of species that do not normally congregate together. The site does not discourage the feeding of birds, however, and provides advice on how to do it in a way that minimizes the spread of pathogens.
Next I logged onto the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s http://feederwatch.org/learn/feeding-birds/, which recommends a variety of birdseed and feeder types to attract various species of birds and offers advice on how to provide a safe bird-feeding environment. It also warns of avian predators like the Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks that are prone to snatching small birds from feeders as well as domestic housecats that catch and kill millions of birds per year. And it warned of something that I experience on occasion myself—bird collisions with windows.
The bottom line is that neither organization discourages the feeding of birds – and even promotes it as long as the practice is done in a responsible way. But what about some of the other wildlife species that can be attracted to your bird feeders? Squirrels, raccoons, deer, and black bears come to mind. I’ve even had a red fox that cleaned up birdseed that spilled on the ground beneath my feeders. That’s when the ethical hot-button comes into play. Aside from the squirrels, whenever any of the other critters start to show up, it’s time to take the bird feeders down.