We once had birders who could learn to be photographers.

Today, we have photographers who need know nothing about birds to take bird photographs.

Birds are a natural target for many photographers, certainly for me. Cameras today are as common as binoculars. That said, the rapid growth of digital photography has been both bad and good for birds.

I bought my first 35mm camera when I was 20 years old. I had been interested in birds for eight years at that point, but I rarely took photos of them. The necessary telephoto lens was out of my price range. Second, and this applied even when I could afford such lenses, the return on investment when using film cameras was low.

My experience with photos was one good shot per roll of film. I was fussy. (Still am.)

Buying a roll of 35mm film and paying for processing was expensive if you were going to keep only one or two exposures. Development and printing could take days. Second chances rarely wait days.

Digital solved all of those issues. The quality and choice of photo equipment today is far better. Value for investment is amazing. Perhaps most important of all, the critique is instant: Click and the image is in your hand. You can smile with pleasure, reshoot, adjust or delete.

There is almost no cost beyond purchase of the camera/lens and, if one chooses, a computer for photo display and manipulation.

I love digital photography. It set me free of all film restrictions. But it did not alter the behavior necessary when approaching wild birds.

The snowy owls seen here in December and January have attracted many photographers. The e-mail exchange operated by the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union has carried reports of a few of those photographers approaching owls so close the birds flushed. That’s bad for the bird, and leaves nothing for the next birder. There have been reports of trespassing.

The knowledge that guides the actions of most birders is not necessary to take photos of birds. Some photographers — certainly not all, but some — put photos first. The welfare of the birds and the courtesies of one birder to another are either not considered or ignored. A trophy photo is most important.

The American Birding Association, which promotes birding for all, has a code of ethics. (www.aba.org/about/ethics.html). The code can be summarized as do no harm. If your behavior will alter the bird’s behavior, don’t do it. (This applies to any encounter with any bird.)

If one approaches close enough for a killer photo and the bird flushes, that’s wrong. Approaching too close to simply see a bird is wrong. Trespassing to get a photo or see a bird is wrong.

In Florida over Christmas I saw interesting birds in a yard. I walked to the house, asked permission to enter the yard, and got it along with a “Thanks for asking.” On a recent birding excursion with a grandson, he saw a corral of elk. He wanted photographs. We drove to the farmhouse, asked, and received permission. And the farmer said, “Thanks for asking.”

The temptations facing photographers are obvious. The problems digital cameras can present for birds are obvious. Common sense and self-discipline — adult behavior — should prevail.

The good news is that birds are receiving much more attention these days through those camera lenses. We have to hope that this interest extends to birds’ welfare, to conservation activity, to preservation support, to interest and concern beyond an awesome close-up.


Lifelong birder Jim Williams can be reached at woodduck38@gmail.com. Join his conversation about birds at www.startribune.com/wingnut.