Today I Saw a Bird: Balancing Sharing and Ethics

Today I saw a bird.  It was orange, and brown, and about the size of a blackbird.  At first I was thinking it was a robin (bright orange, with white bits on the sides of the tail), but something wasn’t right.  Maybe it was a an oriole? A cardinal?

Today I saw this bird. Should I share or should I hide?

I was at a loss.  None of my many apps or books provided an answer (the Merlin App was insistent that I was looking at either a robin or a cardinal).  What I needed was a community of passionate enthusiasts to help!  A quick click of my camera and an upload later I had it posted to a birding group on Facebook.  Within in a minute I had an answer:  a Varied Thrush.

While listed as being in steep decline on Cornell Lab’s website, the Varied Thrush is still common in its home range of the west coast of North American.  So…? Great question!  I saw this bird out of my window in chilly Haliburton, Ontario… some 3,000km from where it should be.

Over the course of the day I had several conversations, both on-line and face-to-face about this rare sighting.  More than a few people had questions about my sighting.  Was it accessible to the public?  Could you see the feeder from a public space?  Could I make arrangements for a couple of serious birders to come out and check for themselves.

I’ll be honest here, I felt uncomfortable about the whole thing.  I try to be helpful.  I remember being new and having questions and feeling like I was interfering or was unworthy or I wasn’t enough…  I didn’t like feeling that way then, and I certainly going to be some Gate Keeper standing between my community and something special.  But that’s exactly what I was doing; I was a hypocrite.  I had shared an amazing find on social media and wasn’t willing to let others share in the experience.

Fortunately, a mentor reminded me of a real and hard fact:  I have a moral and professional obligation to keep that bird safe.

Birders, like with any group of enthusiasts, have some members who take their passions to a fanatic level.  I’ve read several blogs about the length some will go to in order to capture the once-in-a-lifetime picture or add a rarity to their life list.  Check out John Aldred’s ““Baiting” animals worth the short for wildlife photography” and Tom Spears’ Ottawa Citizen story from February of this year to get a better idea of how bad it can get.

How than, am I suppose to balance the duality of wanting to participate in an on-line community while at the same time protecting the bird and the environment?  In the end, I made some compromises.  I recorded my sightings on eBird (a birding app connected with Cornell University), shared the general area of the siting on Facebook (“general”, in this case being roughly 200-square kilometers), and invited some trusted professionals to come out and see for themselves.  Also… and this is a big one… I generally tried not to brag about this random and magical experience.

By its very nature, social media is all about sharing; sharing important life events, or what you had for lunch, or a picture of a cloud that looks kinda-sorta like that guy you use to know.  The challenge today is finding the balance between wanting to share with the world and the need to protect sensitive environments and threatened species.

Having a plan is important. Taking time to figure out what you are going to do when faced with a similar situation will help you be who you want to be.


Facebook: Today I Saw a Bird: How a simple moment raised questions about sharing and stewardship.

Twitter: Birds, sharing and ethics #WhatWouldYouDo

2 thoughts on “Today I Saw a Bird: Balancing Sharing and Ethics

  1. Thanks for this blog! You are raising a very important question: how do we all share things on social media responsibly? In your particular case, I thought you could share the image of the bird you’ve spotted, without endangering it in any way, by not disclosing where you saw the bird and removing all metadata from your photograph. In other cases, people often have to be even more careful with what they share on social media, for they can put people at risk, often very vulnerable people.

  2. I really liked your blog today. it was very thoughtful and spoke about your moral and ethical obligation to our endangered species. How you balance your professional calling to get that perfect picture against your moral compass of protection. I especially liked how you were able to solve that conversation in your head by bringing on board ornithologists who would benefit from the sighting. And your picture is truly beautiful!

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