"An unfortunate consequence of the great increase in the popularity of birding is the impact it has on birds. The principal ethical rule for bird-watchers should be to have no such impact."
― David Allen Sibley
Birding ethics are not law and are entirely optional. While such ethics are not legal mandates, they are standards of conduct that we, as birders, ought to follow. Much has been written about birding ethics lately in the context of this season's astonishing Snowy Owl irruption, but as has been the case for as long as I've been a birder, resolution is fleeting. By the time spring migrants begin to return, the issue of owling ethics is forgotten until the next irruption, when it all starts up again.
Every time there's a northern owl irruption a handful of individuals probe or exceed the boundaries of what constitutes principled birding ethics. These actions include, but are not necessarily limited to, baiting owls with rodents and repeatedly flushing owls in the process of photographing them. Both of these activities have and are occurring in Wisconsin this winter. Subsequently, Listservs, Facebook Groups, and other social media outlets erupt with lively and rancorous debate. These discussions usually end with a moderator or administrator shutting down the conversation on account of excessive personal attacks, or those involved simply agree to disagree.
At least for the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, circumstances during the 2013/2014 Snowy Owl irruption prompted a review and update of their birding code of ethics. I was gratified to see added language regarding repeatedly flushing birds and baiting owls. However, it's still up to us birders to police our own ranks and educate. A problem is that people are easily offended when told by a peer they might be doing something wrong. People often become defensive and irrational causing the communication process to devolve into a barrage of insults. This is especially true over social media where its far easier to take things out of context and misunderstand someone else's point of view or reasoning.
I agree with Kirby Adams that it's important to share good birding ethics in a friendly manner and not angrily confront people or publicly shame them whether on or off social media. The latter achieves nothing. Imagine a curious non-birder witnessing a public shaming in the field; such an encounter might deter someone from ever joining a birding advocacy group or ornithological society. On the other hand, some birders might not be confident enough to confront another birder for fear of verbal retaliation.
Perhaps one way to inform others would be to keep copies of the ABA's or WSO's birding ethical guidelines in your car or backpack and merely hand them out to those you feel are crossing boundaries of good birding ethics. You might even keep a yellow highlight pen on hand to draw attention to the specific ethical point before handing over a copy. You wouldn't have to say a word. Without any exchange of vitriol, you can communicate your sentiment as one that's shared by many reputable birding organizations.
One of the best sentiments from any list of birding ethics I've ever read comes from the introduction of ABA's Principles of Birding Ethics:
"Everyone who enjoys birds and birding must always respect wildlife, its environment, and the rights of others. In any conflict of interest between birds and birders, the welfare of the birds and their environment comes first."
This is a point all birders can and should agree on.
It works both ways, too. If you are approached by another birder for what they deem as a breach of birding ethics, try to remain calm. Listen earnestly to what the other person is saying. Agree to disagree if that's the natural impasse of the conversation and do your best not to let the situation get to you. Naturally, this is easier to say than do. I'll be the first person to admit of my own shortcomings in this regard and I've been on both sides of this conversation. We're all fallible human beings and let's at least try to remember that.