Baiting is a controversial subject that a minority of photographers do not like talking about; however, regardless of whether they dislike the issue, it has to be spoken about within mainstream photography to ensure we are all practicing ethical photography and protecting wildlife for future generations.
Of all the photography subjects I speak and write about, baiting remains the only subject that irritates a minority of photographers. I’ve been threatened with lawsuits (for exposing deadly baiting practices), threatened with violence and censored for calling out unethical photography involving live bait.
Photography baiting is considered unethical by the majority of wildlife photographers because it carries various risks ranging from habitation, spread of diseases, injury and death. Reversing the habituation process is almost impossible too of which animals can become dependant on humans for free food, rather than that of their natural habitat.
In addition to habitation, some photography setups are also considered hazardous and unethical to animals too. The image below depicts a tank setup which to the casual onlooker may seem relatively harmless. However, if the protected schedule one kingfisher were to approach the tank from the side, the bird could mistake the transparent tank for water resulting in the bird hitting the side of the tank at speed leading to injury, or even death.
Meanwhile, the image viewer does not discern the photographer luring or bating with respect to the staged photos. Instead, the viewer is deceived into a false narrative that the subject has been photographed behaving naturally, hunting or foraging for its own food.
Intrinsically this creates a demand for said photos, and sets a bad example to others who may choose to copy the same photography projects by enrolling in photography courses that practice tanking, and other unethical wildlife photography activities.
Furthermore, photographers that practice these types of hazardous baiting projects will only learn about their mistakes when sickness, habituation, injury or death of an animal transpires. Unfortunately, by that time its often too late, and the damage has been done of which the photographer rarely avows to their preconceived and wilful transgressions.
Some photographers will try to justify their actions by minimising harm or disturbance as seen in the image below. The photographers have concealed and cushioned the sides of the tank therefore reducing the likelihood of a bird injury. Furthermore, to avoid disturbance, the photographers have positioned their cameras on a stand where they operate each camera from an infrared, motion sensor (PIR), or wired remote silent shutter-release.
However, what the photographers fail to grasp is that habituation and disturbance can still eventuate, and while there has been some attempt made to reduce harm and disturbance, its not fool-proof.
When photographers begin justifying their behaviour by minimising any potential harm with respect to a wildlife photography project, its normally a good idea to step-back, and contemplate whether this is really a good idea or not?
The majority of voracious wildlife photographers choose not to bait, modify their surroundings, or disrupt the natural behaviours of their living subjects, instead they prefer to sit-it-out in all weather conditions, using the correct photography equipment which can be challenging but rewarding in the long-run, especially for competitive or documentary photography.
Instead of using bait to lure wildlife closer, most professional photographers will use a dedicated hide to camouflage themselves from sensitive species of wildlife such as birds, deer, foxes and big cats. As an added bonus, many hides will also offer rain protection too, and with the correct telephoto lenses, most photographers prefer patience over impatience.
Where a portable photography hide, or static blind has been setup without implementing lures such as live or dead bait, this is considered good-practice and ethical. However, when using live or dead bait near-to the hide, the hide is nothing more than an inefficacious tool, and serves no purpose concerning bona fide wildlife photography.
Occasionally, some photographers will operate from a blind that’s adjoined to a reflective pool such as the one seen in the image below. Reflective pools are an excellent accompaniment to any hide because they attract all sorts of feathered birds, and land mammals.
However, if bait is added to frequently lure animals into the pool time-after-time, there’s always that possibility that some species of animals could become dependant on humans as a free food source.
In addition, where total habitation has occurred due to baiting, some animals are known to migrate into human populated areas in search of food. When habituated animals migrate into urbanised areas they face other risks too such as predation, vehicle strikes or deliberate persecution.
In conclusion, baiting wildlife for photography is viewed as unethical by the majority of wildlife photographers, and is not worth the shot due to several identified risks that are associated with photography baiting projects.
“How is baiting raptors any different to feeding garden birds seed and millet?”
Hide operators and wildlife photographers that support bird baiting will often try to justify their actions by comparing the feeding of garden birds to that of birds of prey. And while both behaviours are somewhat identical, there remains a significantly big difference between the two that requires a more meticulous comparison.
The growing accessibility of camera equipment, paired with a remerging appreciation for nature, means that more and more photographers are seeking the perfect wildlife shot.
An owl swooping down after prey can be visually striking, and also a rare moment for a photographer relying on timing and patience to get a picture. However, the urge to compete with one another, especially on social media is enticing more and more photographers to take the impatient route.
Raptors are a common species of bird that wildlife photographers enjoy photographing, however, within the last decade ornithologists have voiced their concerns regarding the use of live and dead rodents for bird baiting photography. These concerns primarily relate to the use of rodenticide.
When baited raptors are fed poisoned rodents, the raptor will suffer the same fate as the rodent. Furthermore, when the raptor dies, animals that scavenge off of the dead raptor carcass will die too.
As with the kingfisher shot, some photographers will try to justify their behaviour by minimising harm and disturbance of which they may purchase live or dead rodents from a pet store. Additionally, some photographers may trap and kill rodents with non-baited traps too which is seen as cost effective.
Some photographers have also been known to collect dead birds to use as raptor bait, however, all of this comes at a price in the long-run, especially if those dead birds have died as a result of poisoning, salmonella or other diseases.
Birds of prey should hunt for their own food because it’s part of their healthy behavioural patterns. When they’re fed by photographers and others seeking to get a closer look, it can disrupt their lives, which isn’t good for the longevity of the species.
While raptor baiting may seem relatively harmless, it comes with many problems which can lead to the following:
- Causing wild animals to lose their fear of humans
- Encourages birds to fly into roadways and toward cars
- Raptors may be fed food that is not normally in their diet
- Possible introduction of pathogens, such as salmonella and parasites to the population
- Inconsistent food source
- Baited hides can attract high numbers of raptors which could lead to the displacement of smaller birds and animals in the food chain to habitats that are unsuitable for them
- Dead birds used for raptor prey could potentially have been poisoned which can pass onto the raptor, and its young
As indicted above, baiting birds of prey is no different to that of feeding garden birds, in that its the same behaviour. Feeding garden birds has been a tradition in the United Kingdom since the 6th century when monk Saint Serf of Fife tamed a pigeon by feeding it.
The industry is now worth over £11 million. During the harsh winter of 1890–1891 in the United Kingdom national newspapers asked people to put out food for birds to maintain the longevity of their survival during the cold wintery months.
While most people don’t associate bird feeders with live food, some feeders do dispense wriggling meals in the form of mealworms. They are an important source of protein for several species of birds, and research has shown feeding to be beneficial.
Careful data collection by people running bluebird trails in the Americas affirmed that during harsh springs, bluebird survival improved with artificial feeding—an important consideration in efforts to restore bluebird numbers to historical highs.
These bluebird aficionados developed feeders designed for small cavity-dwellers, and like birds visiting traditional bird feeders and feeding stations, bluebirds learned to associate the feeders, not people, with their meals.
Two other groups regularly provide live meals for birds: Raptor researchers and photographers. But setting out live or dead rodents to lure raptors differs from traditional bird feeding in a fundamental way.
With the latter, it’s the feeding station and birds already present that attract new birds, not the humans providing the food. There is no rodent dispenser that raptors can visit whenever they want. As intelligent, adaptable predators, birds of prey lured by mice learn to associate people with food.
Researchers have always called their practice of offering mice to owls “baiting.” As with setting mousetraps, baiting hooks to lure fish, and other uses of the term, baiting attracts an animal for an immediate purpose.
Scientists and rehabbers bait owls for banding, relocating away from airports and other dangerous sites, and rehabilitation of injured birds. Baiting is the safest way to lure an owl for these purposes, and even if it gets the reward of a meal, the process of being trapped and handled is a negative experience, making that bird less, not more, likely to approach people in the future.
Photography, on the other hand, creates a positive association with bait and so habituates birds to a situation that can be harmful. Even when photographers conscientiously bait far from roadsides, if a bird of prey learns to associate their presence with food, it will be drawn to roads as that’s where people are most often found.
UNREGULATED PHOTOGRAPHY HIDES
Contrary to popular belief, photography baiting is quite common all around the world. Photographers that practice baiting at competitive levels rarely confess to doing so because most photography organisations prohibit any means of baiting. Furthermore, baiting is viewed as unethical, with some photographers left feeling cheated by those that do bait.
In addition, the small minority of hide operators that run baiting activities for amateur and professional photographers are only interested in generating considerable sums of money by exploiting local wildlife for profit, fame and social media attention, rather than being a genuine and ethical wildlife photographer.
With that said, the majority of hide operators are genuine photographers themselves that practice and teach ethical photography using the correct equipment in the right locations. Several U.K wildlife organisations also permit photographers to shoot on their land using hides and reflective pools too, however, baiting and luring is normally prohibited by most wildlife and national trust charities.
Unfortunately, a small minority of photographers don’t practice good ethics whereby they repeatedly bend the rules and laws to suit them, and their modus operandi. Furthermore, some hides in the U.K. are not fit for purpose placing both photographers and animals in danger too.
In recent years, the growing number of private wildlife photography hides has skyrocketed in the United Kingdom, many of which are not regulated or even registered companies.
Scottish Photography Hides, owned by Alan McFadyen is one of many hundreds of unregulated hides that has been criticised in the past by several renowned photographers, and members of the public.
Complaints regarding Scottish Photography Hides range, from cruelly tanking schedule one kingfishers as seen in image below from ITV Border Life who interviewed McFadyen regarding his so-called nature photography.
Concerns about the spread of diseases, habituation and disturbance of protected fauna have also been raised by a number of wildlife photographers regarding daily and persistent baiting of birds, and land mammals at McFadyen’s hides.
Furthermore, between 2016-2017, a number of complaints were lodged with the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA) regarding the type of bait used at McFadyen’s hides to lure birds of prey.
These allegations focused on the use of live or dead bait, some of which was photographed nailed to posts at McFadyen’s hides, as seen in the image below snapped by Gary Jones, a regular visitor to Scottish Photography Hides.
After researching Alan McFadyen’s website, and social media pages, I came across a substantial amount of baiting from various hides up and down the country which raises several concerns about habitation, imprinting, behavioural change and disturbance.
McFadyen baits a wide genera of birds ranging from owls, sparrow hawks and cuckoos to name but a few. McFadyen’s hides also attract unusually high numbers of mixed wildlife too, attracting photographers from all over the United Kingdom.
In addition to birds, McFadyen lures and baits smaller animals to reflective pools ranging from red squirrels, badgers, foxes, otters and mink. Whilst there’s no clear evidence of wildlife crimes being committed at Alan’s hides, some of McFadyen’s social media posts are concerning and suspicious.
On the 1st November 2016, McFadyen posted images of dead birds onto his Facebook page which he claimed were legally sourced from cat owners and bird breeders which McFadyen, and visiting photographers use to bait raptors.
McFadyen stated on that Facebook post seen here:
“I have a good supply of dead birds that are from cat owners, and cage bird breeders so I will be using these for the next few weeks. Looks much better in the shot. Book while stocks last.”Source: Alan McFadyen
Whilst using dead birds from cat owners and bird breeders is not illegal. The abundance of dead birds at McFadyen’s hides that are used to bait birds of prey concerned wildlife photographers, which McFadyen claimed had made a complaint to the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA).
On the 11th December 2017, McFadyen claimed on his Facebook page that the (SSPCA) had visited Scottish Photography Hides to carry out an inspection.
After the inspection, McFadyen stated:
“Had a visit from the SSPCA today as someone was worried that I couldn’t possibly source the number of birds that I sometimes put out for the sparrow hawk.
The SSPCA were invited to go through my chest freezer which they did, and of course everything was well above board. I have a lot of dead birds in the freezer that are all from legitimate sources which I proved straight away.
I must say that they were absolutely brilliant in the way they treated me, and couldn’t have been nicer. These dead birds I obtain instead of going to waste provide a nice meal for the sparrow hawk, and in turn save a living bird from being killed.
I would suspect it was reported by one of the ethic brigade who have no idea how I operate. These saddos are just wasting valuable time of people that have more important things to do. Nice try but again you fail. PLEASE SHARE in the hope that they see it.
Thanks Alan”Source: Alan McFadyen
As mentioned, the use of dead bait to lure birds of prey for a more natural looking photograph is not considered illegal. However, the abundance of so many dead birds from so-called “cat owners and bird breeders” stored in a chest freezer is somewhat unusual to see at wildlife hides where bait is used regularly.
The risk of communicating infectious diseases to raptors from any dead animal is also a concern. Furthermore, baited raptors are placed at a significantly high risk of unintentional/intentional poisoning by photographers that use dead animals that’s cause of death is unknown.
On the 2nd May 2021, I reached out to the SSPCA for further information concerning their so-called inspection at Scottish Photography Hides, however, under the Data Protection Act 2018 the SSPCA could not provide any insight into what they inspected and why.
“If it’s good enough for them, its good for me.”
From April to December 2021, I questioned several well-known bird baiters that own photography blinds/hides throughout the United Kingdom. A small minority of baiters agreed that habituation and disturbance can eventuate from photography baiting however, the baiters also pointed to the RSPB that use bird baited images to raise donations, sell merchandise, and to create awareness concerning animal welfare.
On the 1st May 2016, Alan McFadyen claimed that the RSPBs vice president, Chris Packham was in support of bird baiting too despite the RSPB informing me they did not recommend feeding or luring birds for the purpose of photography.
The majority of baiters I questioned concerning the RSPB showcasing their images stated, “if its good enough for them, its good enough for me.” After researching the RSPB websites, social media pages, and known affiliates, I came across a substantial amount of baited wildlife photography which would likely explain the grey areas of debate that emerge in some wildlife forums concerning those that are for, and against photography baiting.
Additionally, its also understood the RSPB’s vice president, Chris Packham is somewhat of a regular visitor to Scottish Photography Hides too, where birds and land mammals are baited for photography.
On the 21st May 2021, I reached out to Chris Packham via email, on Facebook and on Twitter for an explanation concerning the baiting of birds and land mammals. However, at the time of publishing this article, Chris Packham refused to comment.
Back in May 2021, I reached out to the RSPB concerning their position on luring and baiting birds for photography. The RSPB’s reply contradicts what I came across on their website, social media pages, and from known affiliates that represent the RSPB.
On the 7th May 2021, the RSPB replied to my email stating:
“Good afternoon Jon, thank you for your message.
Apologies for the lack of reply to your email, we currently have a long waiting period due to the volume of emails. I have found it.
We do not recommend luring birds for photographs, whether that’s with food or call playback. However, we do recommend feeding because supplementary feeding can be very helpful for wild birds, especially when there is a shortage of natural food.
The feeding is meant to be to help birds rather than purely for our enjoyment or capturing a photo. Taking a look at your email, there is no set distance to keep away from nests or birds, but rather people and photographers should watch out for signs of disturbance such as sharp alarm calls or flying away from nest or difficulty flying back to the nest.
Every bird is different so photographers must be alert and aware of changes in behaviour due to their presence. I hope this answers your query.”Source: RSPB
On the 13th May 2021, I forwarded the same question to the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) concerning their position on luring and baiting birds for photography.
The BTOs Head of Communications stated:
Thank you for getting in touch with us through Facebook and for asking about our position on the luring and baiting of birds for photography.
Although we do not have a position statement on this – because it is not something that is directly related to our work or core charitable activities – there are two areas where the ethics of wildlife photography does overlap with what we do or what we have done.
The first of these is through the images that we use in our publications, most of which have been donated for our use by a small number of wildlife photographers with whom we have developed relationships.
Ethics is something that has come up in discussions with some of these photographers, though this has been as part of wider conversations about wildlife photography rather than in relation to the images they have donated for our use.
We would not want to use images that had been captured through unethical practices, such as ‘live-baiting’.
The second area is in relation to Bird Photographer of the Year, a competition with which BTO was involved over several years. As part of our input to the competition, we worked with the wider team on the ethical considerations of such competitions.
We felt that it was important that the competition should have a clear statement on ethics and that the rules should include rules relating to the ethics of capturing an image (which covered things like ‘live baiting’ and disturbance).
Although we are no longer involved in the competition, it looks like the current rules still include the components on ethical considerations (including the prohibition of live baiting).
Just as our scientific research and monitoring activities are governed by legislative and ethical principles, designed to protect the birds and other wildlife that we study, we would hope that bird photographers, and indeed birdwatchers, follow a similar approach when participating in their own, independent activities.
I hope that helps. If you have not seen it, you might find Audubon’s ethics guide useful.”
With best wishes
Head of Communications
British Trust for Ornithology
The Nunnery, Thetford, Norfolk IP24 2PUSource: British Trust for Ornithology
As it stands, there is insufficient regulation governing what photographers can and cannot do at privately owned photography hides in the United Kingdom. Fortunately, wildlife in the U.K. is offered year-round protection, however, until stringent regulations are enforced concerning unregulated hides, unscrupulous photographers will continue bending and breaking current British wildlife laws.
As mentioned, there are many hundreds of regulated and unregulated photography hides/blinds throughout the United Kingdom. While many appear to be genuine hides that focus more on the welfare of the subject, others focus more on the importance of the photo.
The fundamental rule of ethical wildlife photography is that the welfare of the subject is more important than the photo, however, when that rule is broken, so-called wildlife photographers cross into another divide, whereby they focus purely on themselves rather than the natural beauty that is in front of them.
Habituation is an extremely simple form of learning, in which an animal, after a period of exposure to a stimulus, stops responding. The most interesting thing about habituation is that it can occur at different levels in the nervous system.
Animals always survey their surroundings for potential threats. Sometimes the threat is real, and other times, there’s nothing for them to worry about. Many times, the perceived threat is a friendly human in their environment. The animals then become habituated to the perceived threat and continue to live as normal.
In addition to habitation, when a stimulus is added time-and-time again such as food, the animals begin to associate humans with food therefore losing their natural hunting and foraging behaviours.
This is especially concerning when young animals such as fledglings and their parents have become totally reliant on humans as a food source. Moreover, if the stimulus ceases for whatever reason and the humans move on, it often results in animals dying from starvation or following humans back to their habitat looking for food.
Examples of habitation range from:
- Prairie dogs retreat into their holes at the sound of approaching human footsteps. When this occurs many times and the prairie dogs know the footsteps are not a threat, they no longer retreat at the sound of footsteps
- Ducks in a small pond at a park are scared of people and fly away when approached. They become used to humans over time as they interact with them, and as people feed them, causing them to realize that the humans are not a threat
- A newly-purchased pet bird is initially scared of its owners hand, and backs away or bites when its owner attempts to take it out of its cage. After a few days, the bird becomes used to the owner and readily hops onto his/her hand, realizing the owner does not pose a threat
Canadian Geologist and Natural Heritage Education Specialist at Algonquin Provincial Park, Dr David Legros, believes the bad behaviour of photographers can be attributed to the widespread use of social media platforms. Before the likes of Facebook and Twitter came along, photographers relished in shooting, processing and showcasing their images in galleries and magazines.
Nowadays, the majority of photographers are competing with each other for awards, likes, shares and online fame which can pressurize some photographers into taking risks, or being impatient.
Back in June 2021, Canadian Geologist, Dr David Legros had this to say about baiting and habituation, and why photographers should avoid it:
“Baiting causes habituation, “rewarding” an animal for abnormal behaviour. Habituation happens when an animal is exposed to a stimulus so many times, it loses sensitivity or stops viewing the stimulus as a threat.
Therefore, habituated animals may become aggressive toward humans in the future, or become more inclined to spend time closer to roads, where it’s more likely they could be struck by a vehicle and killed.
Ethical and responsible photography is a great hobby and an amazing way to get close with nature. I believe the bad behaviour of photographers can be attributed to the widespread use of social media platforms.
I think a lot of it is driven by increases in the accessibility of digital photography, and social media, because everyone is showing their pictures and everyone else wants to get great pictures too.
Animals rarely pose for our pictures. Stellar wildlife photography is often the result of luck, patience and experience. It’s important to remember: Ethical photographers never get too close to the animal!”Source: Dr David Legros
Although wildlife baiting and habituation is not viewed as a direct global threat to birds and mammals, baiting and habitation does impact wildlife at a global level. After analysing the status of all 557 raptor species (2018), biologists discovered that 18 percent of these birds are threatened with extinction, and 52 percent have declining global populations, making them more threatened than all birds as a whole.
Comparatively, 40 percent of the world’s 11,000 bird species are in decline, according to an April 2018 report from BirdLife International. Populations of UK native birds are 11 per cent lower than they were in 1970, with 2019 seeing a continued trend of year-on-year decline, according to a new government report.
Farmland bird populations have fallen by 57 percent since the 1970s too. This includes species such as the grey partridge, turtle dove, starling, tree sparrow and corn bunting.
When challenged, wildlife photographers that use bait to lure animals closer often protest that they’re ecologically orientated individuals, and that adding bait is of a conservation value whereby its safeguarding the species they’re photographing.
In addition, a small minority of hardcore wildlife photographers masquerade under the banner of conservation in which they try to suppress raised concerns and grey area debate concerning baiting.
Throughout my study, I found no evidence to back the baiters claims up that baiting for a photo safeguards birds and land mammals. On the 26th May 2021, I emailed Charlie Heap, Director of the National Centre for Birds of Prey based in Duncombe Park, Helmsley to understand more about baiting and habituation of raptors.
Charlie Heap said:
I am not a fan of baiting in any way.
At the very least it habituates a wild bird to human contact and inevitably makes the bird more reliant on the bait food source.
Most wild animals are only just surviving – we must not forget the effort that is expended by the bird may be its last energy reserves that would have been better invested in hunting proper quarry.
I suspect it may even be illegal under animal welfare legislation to use live bait – it is most certainly unethical.
Whilst there are instances of the feeding of wild raptors being of real conservation benefit – for example “vulture restaurants”, I don’t feel that a mouse on a post in front of a hide can really be compared with an international conservation effort to save a species!
I don’t know of any instances where a wild raptor’s death can be attributed to having eaten a photographer’s bait – the risks are a bit more subtle and hard to see.
The majority of birds of prey in the UK are diurnal. However even owls can be seen in daylight – the Short Eared Owl is a diurnal species. Nocturnal owls can often be seen during the day at this time of year as they need extra time to hunt enough food for dependant chicks.
I hope this helps!”Source: Director of the National Centre for Birds of Prey
Back in 2017, American professional nature photographer Michael Furtman wrote a rather disturbing report about the practice of baiting owls with mice. In his report Michael writes of the risks, stating:
“The risk to the owl takes several forms. One concern is that pet shop mice frequently carry the salmonella bacteria and have been the focus of alerts and recalls by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centre for Disease Control.
No studies have been done on the impact of this disease on owls, but it is known that salmonella causes severe diarrhoea in infected animals and weakens their resistance to other diseases.
There is no good reason to subject these owls to illness and death simply for the sake of a photograph.
Some photographers have begun raising “wild” mice for their own use or to sell to other photographers, claiming these mice from wild stock are “better for the owl.”
But a small percentage (about 1-2%) of wild mice carry this bacterium as well.
When raised in confinement, the bacteria can be passed quickly through faeces to the other mice, meaning that most or all the “wild” mice raised by photographers could also be infected with salmonella.
In the wild, the odds are low of an owl eating an infected wild mouse. When fed by photographers, the probability of infection increases.”Source: Michael Furtman
Michael Furtman also posted a video onto YouTube showing the unethical practices of owl baiting. In that video report, Michael Furtman wrote:
“This video was shot a few winters ago of two unethical photographers baiting a Great Grey Owl, as well as teasing it.
The videographer had nothing to do with the event, but just happened to come across these idiots.
Pay attention to three things: one, how helpless the owl is at the sight of a mouse; how it totally lacks any sense of self preservation because of the presence of the mouse; and three, at the end there’s a replay in slow motion of the mouse being snatched away from the owl.”Source: Michael Furtman
JEAN KEENE ‘AKA’ THE EAGLE LADY
As indicated above, a minority of hardcore wildlife photographers masquerade under the banner of conservation whereby they claim feeding wild birds does not lead to habitation, which brings me to Jean Keene.
Jean Keene, commonly known as the Eagle Lady became the subject of national attention due to her feeding of wild bald eagles on the Homer Spit in Homer, Alaska.
However, once Jean became the centre of media attention, wildlife photographers from far and wide descended onto the Homer Spit in Homer, Alaska to snap images of bald eagles. Although Jean had many supporters for the feedings, she was also criticised for drawing a large population of eagles to the area.
On the 28th June 2006, ABC News reported that the Homer Council had officially banned the feeding of bald eagles however, Homer Council had to temporarily lift the ban for Jean Keene because the eagles began suffering from starvation.
Jean Keene was then given 90 days to gradually ween the eagles off of the fish she was feeding them, unfortunately, the damage had already been done of which many bald eagles had become totally habituated to the presence of Jean, and visiting photographers that had also been feeding the birds too.
Keene and visiting photographers had altered the feeding habits of bald eagles. A species almost driven to extinction because of habitat destruction and degradation, illegal shooting, and the contamination of its food source, due to use of the pesticide DDT, which almost decimated the eagle population.
After Jeans death in 2009, the City Council of Homer passed a second ordinance order prohibiting the feeding of bald eagles, crows, ravens, and other predatory and scavenger birds by any person, effective March 19th, 2009.
However, when Jean passed, and the second ordinance was implemented the problem didn’t go away. Despite Jeans attempts at weening the birds off of the fish she had been feeding the bald eagles, it had no effect. Homer City Council at 9:23 p.m. AST on the 27th March 2009 unanimously approved yet another emergency ordinance extending eagle feeding by Jean Keene’s friend, Steve Tarola and/or his designated assistance.
On an average day, Keene was feeding 200 eagles a day for photographs. Many of her images featured online, and in magazines. Keene fed them an estimated 500 pounds (227 kg) of fish per day, about 50,000 pounds (22,680 kg) per year. Crows and gulls were also attracted to the area.
Her fish supply included surplus and freezer-burned fish from fish processing facilities still on the Spit, her own purchases using her limited funds from Social Security or retirement benefits, or fish contributed by her supporters.
Visitors could come and watch the eagles Keene fed on the Spit at no cost but were asked to stay in their cars for their own safety and for the safety of the eagles.
It was also suggested by environmentalists and ecologists that Keene’s actions had led to eco-system impacts by displacing smaller species of birds, however, there was never any hard-hitting evidence to back that claim up.
Wild animals should have a fear of humans, however when wild animals are perpetually exposed to the same stimuli (humans and bait) they lose their fear of humans and stop acting naturally around us.
When wild animals no longer see humans as a threat, they allow humans to come very close to them, or the animal will approach a human. The video above was recorded at Gigrin Farm in Wales that shows Chris Powell feeding red kites lumps of butchers meat at a so-called feeding station. Coincidently, Gigrin Farm also caters for photographers that pay to photograph the feeding of red kites via several hides at the farm.
In the United Kingdom, red kites almost suffered the same fate as that of the American bald eagle in Alaska. Fortunately, the Alaskan Homer Council stepped in just in time, however, it still took several attempts to ween the birds off of the fish Jean Keene and visitors had been feeding them.
Reversing the process of human and animal habituation is incredibly arduous, and at times impossible, even-more so when hundreds of animals have become totally reliant on humans as a source of food. While some species of animals may benefit from seasonal supplementary feed for their survival during cold wintery months, they most certainly don’t benefit from year round feeding for the purpose of human entertainment.
Animals produce sounds for various purposes such as attraction of mate, warning signals, defence of territories, attracting prey, and orientation. Most of the sound produced by animals are species specific, highly distinct and can be heard at long distances in highly obstructed habitats.
Wildlife biologists use sound emissions of animals in many biodiversity assessment and monitoring studies. However, using sound in avifaunal study must be used with extreme caution and careful attention; because bird sounds vary from species to species and often a single species can produce a variety of calls and songs. Furthermore, there are some species that mimics the calls and song of other species. These make avifaunal studies using bioacoustics difficult and complicated.
At times wildlife photographers may use bird playback too. In addition, photo-tog baiters are known for using playback to lure birds and mammals closer to hides and reflective pools. While bird playbacks may seem an innocent activity to lure an animal closer for a photograph, playbacks are known to stress and confuse animals, especially birds.
On the 31st January 2020, wild-bird enthusiast and photojournalist, Melissa Mayntz wrote a column about the use of bird recordings in the online Spruce magazine, stating:
“When a bird hears a recording, it cannot tell that the sound is recorded. Because many birds use songs to claim territory, hearing another song may make the bird believe its territory has been invaded by a competitor, and it will seek out that competitor to challenge it.
When a bird responds to a recording, it is no longer foraging, caring for eggs or chicks, preening, resting, or otherwise doing the activities it needs to survive. Instead, the agitated bird is now chasing a fake bird.
Constantly chasing competitors stresses a bird, and unlimited recording use can dramatically impact its well-being.
While no studies have yet proven conclusively how much harm recordings do to birds, some results have shown that males may lose dominance in the eyes of their mates because of recordings, which can impact whether those birds can breed successfully.
Without more proof of ongoing harm to birds, however, the ethics of bird calls to attract birds remains controversial.”Source: The Spruce
On the 24th May 2021, I reached out to the RSPB for further advice about the use of bird playback, and whether the use of tape-lures could be a contravention of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and the Protection of Birds Act 1954.
The RSPB replied to my email stating:
“Playing a recording of calls to encourage a bird to respond can divert a territorial bird from other important duties. Most birds are more sensitive to calls during the breeding season as they can be looking for mates and defending territories.
When a bird responds to a recording, it can take time from activities such as foraging, preening, raising young, etc. We do not recommend playing bird calls to attract them for a photograph.
It is important what the purpose of the call is for. For example, swift calls and such are OK. Swift numbers in the UK have been falling by 3% per year since 1995, partly because we are no longer leaving space for them in our buildings.
If you have a swift nest box, you can help the swifts find their new home by broadcasting a welcome, which is a recording of their calls. They are very social birds so it can alert them to the new site, instead of instigating a territorial defence that will distract from their activities.
It is advised to play them near your nest site when the birds will be prospecting. Legally, certain birds that are more prone to disturbance have extra protection. Making it an offence to intentionally or recklessly disturb any wild bird listed on Schedule 1 while it is nest building, or at a nest containing eggs or young, or disturb the dependent young of such a bird. I hope this clarifies our position.“
Best wishesSource: RSPB
As birdwatching has grown and digital photography has boomed, drawing out the birds to get a picture has been increasing too. The misuse of playbacks in the past few years has alarmed authorities, conservationists, birders and guides alike, prompting growing conversations on ethics and studies to evaluate how much damage is inflicted onto birds during playback luring.
There is no denying that wildlife photography has been an effective tool for conservation, up to a limit. Wildlife photography, in the intrusive ways it is practised today, can safely be termed a menace.
The boom in social media has also seen an increase in several unethical practices that wildlife photographers deploy to get those ‘magical’ shots of their subjects, and one such practice when it comes to shooting birds is ‘playback’.
Birdsong playback has had several advantages: it has helped ornithologists discover, record and describe bird species, their ranges and distributions. Birds that are skulkers by nature are impossible to observe without this ‘deception’.
However, ever since playback has landed in the hands of photographers and bird tour operators, this tool has been nothing but a tool for peril to birdlife. Bird photographers have mindlessly been exposing birds to the risks that come with playback: an unnecessary expenditure of the bird’s energy, and exposing itself to its predators.
Many birdwatchers and even scientists who are now conducting bird photo tours are guilty of propagating the use of playback, and the practice now goes unchecked in many popular birding hotspots around the world.
Unfortunately, some of our rarest and most endangered birds are also found in these hotspots. Birds are frequently harassed, disturbed, and driven out of cover, all for the sake of a great close-up photo of a bird in action.
In a 2018 case, in West Bengal, a Hooded Pitta (the bird seen in the cartoon above) was forced to abandon its nest after being hounded by playback-photographers in Bengal.
Ecologists and wildlife biologists with a permit for research should be the only people permitted to to use playback for honest research. The current rampancy of playback and the sheer number of people using it today has made the situation something of an emergency in countries such as India, Pakistan and Nepal.
PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE
The importance of patience in natural photography is indispensable. Its now a cliché that our society is super fast paced. There’s no time to relax. There’s no time for reading an article longer than 1000 words, however, if you’ve managed to get this far you have the patience to be an adept and successful photographer.
This attitude of go, go, go will not serve you well in landscape, nature or wildlife photography. While there are times you may need to bolt out of bed and hit the trail running before the sun rises, shooting natural scenes requires patience. It is something the young or inexperienced often lack and it is a lesson most of us typically learn on our own.
Patience is important in natural photography because you are likely not in control of the scene. You have a say in where you stand and point your camera, but often the scene is unfolding at its own pace, which is different than yours. This difference is what causes impatience in most of us. And when we’re impatient, unintentional mistakes are bound to happen, or we deliberately break the rules to suit our agenda, and that’s not what wildlife photography is about.
What can you do about increasing patience for natural photography? It takes the effort to introduce patience into your life in general to have it available for shooting photos. There’s no quick cure other than slowing down a bit, getting used to the quiet times in your life when the TV isn’t on and you’re not madly clicking from link to link on the internet, looking to be entertained.
Meditation helps some people while others like breathing exercises. Reading at least 20 pages of a good book is also good exercise as it trains your brain to stay on one topic for an extended period of time.
When I were a young child, I used to make my own AirFix models which required precision patience. I can still vividly remember laying all the parts out on the floor, reading the diagram, setting up my cutting tools, tweezers, glues and paints. From there on I would often spend days, and occasionally months to a few years building each model.
Each model I made by hand was built in parts, however, at times I would often find myself rushing some projects, and as such mistakes were made because I was too impatient. Occasionally, I hurried my builds because I was often working in stress positions, or the light was fading. Again, it all boiled down to impatience, and not finding the correct working time and location to suit me.
However, once each model was constructed, painted under a magnifying glass, and secured to its stand, I felt like I had achieved yet another mission in life. And this is how I envisage photography today when I am out shooting. As Bruce Lee once said, patience is not passive, on the contrary, it is concentrated strength which is how wildlife photography should be adopted by all.
Baiting wildlife for photography remains controversial, often leading to heated debates among photographers. Furthermore, those that do bait rarely admit to doing so.
Throughout my study, I found much misleading information regarding baiting; in addition, several British charities and renowned conservationists that claim to be “against baiting” are unknowingly and knowingly supporting it.
When wildlife charities and TV conservation personalities are seen to support the baiting of wildlife for photography, it leads to emerging grey areas, which communicates the message that baiting wildlife for photography is morally acceptable.
Hundreds of studies prove baiting and tape-luring wildlife for photography is unethical. The first concern is that baiting can lead to habituation and behavioural changes, creates a dependency on humans for food, causes wild animals to lose their fear of humans, and encourages birds to go into roadways and toward cars.
Furthermore, studies have proven that baiting and tape-luring wildlife can introduce pathogens, such as salmonella, and parasites to the population, and the bait supplied is often an unreliable food source.
Therefore, photographers are encouraged to practice patience, bring longer lenses, and research before heading out is also vital to ensure you know where your subjects thrive.
In addition, wildlife photographers should keep their shutter speed as fast as possible and not be afraid to shoot at a high ISO, and finally, practice focusing on a moving subject regularly.
Photographers are also encouraged to create a natural wildlife garden in their home; for example, I use a long table filled with water and plants that naturally attract birds and insects.
Birds and mammals need water to drink, and with plants that attract insects, birds and mammals will soon find their way to the garden without lures or bait.
A mobile hide can also come in handy, and you’ll also need a long lens, tripod and remote shutter release. As mentioned, the main requirement here is patience, and while some of us do not have it, you’ll soon find it pays off.
J. J. Williamson | The Norfolk Photographer
My name is Jon Williamson; I’m an ethical photographer and writer with fifteen years of experience in the industry. I shoot landscapes, seascapes, riverscapes, fine art, and portraits. I also run workshops, run tours, and offer one-on-one photography feedback.