Legal Aspects of Wildlife Photography

It seems I’m not quite complete with the discussion of appropriate field behavior as a wildlife photographer. I promise, I’ll get into the “How to’s” soon.

The American Bird Association has an excellent Code of Ethics for both birders and wildlife photography. There are two points that are the most important.

First, one should avoid stressing the bird. Give them space and in particular in nesting and breeding season. Use blinds or remote camera trigger switches to reduce impact. Avoid using flash or song playbacks as well.

Secondly, when discovering a sensitive or rare species, protect the information and the bird. Once the word gets out, every Twitcher (bird watcher) and wildlife photographer will be rushing out to see the animal. Thus causing rush hour traffic as what has happened at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge the past two weeks.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act created in 1918 protects far more bird species than you would ever imagine. Even in Florida with their common Cattle Egret.

There is a clause in there that specifically states “That one is prohibited to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, attempt to take at any time, or in any manner, any migratory bird, included in the terms of this Convention. For the protection of migratory birds or any part, nest, or egg of any such bird.”

In translation, the term “Take” in these acts are defined as such:

“Take” includes pursue, shoot, shoot at, poison, wound, kill, capture, trap, collect, molest or disturb.

Thus they are protected from harassment under Federal Law. What this means is that if you are seen pursuing wildlife or a bird relentlessly, you can receive a citation and a significant fine for your disturbance.

Another legal point is trespassing. No matter where, when or what. You should respect other people’s property, land and farm land. Just because you see a great bird or animal that you would love to spend time photographing. You need to stay safely on the road. Don’t consider walking onto the farmland, and especially crops just to get the shot. Farmers are usually armed and some hold the motto “Shoot first – ask questions later.” It’s common sense to stay off of other people’s property but you’d be surprised to the amount of trespassing that occurs.

If you’re really dying to get access, it never hurts to ask. If no one is around. Consider leaving a note in the mailbox with your contact information and hope you hear from them. Also farmers do keep an eye on their land and may come out to see what you’re up to. Most are friendly but don’t assume they all are.

The amount of natural areas throughout the world offers us an abundant source of wildlife to enjoy and photograph. Use your common sense, stay safe, stay on the trail and keep your battery charged.

4 thoughts on “Legal Aspects of Wildlife Photography

  1. I really appreciate you taking the time to write this out. This has been my first year birding and I have so much to learn about bird behaviour. I often miss the clues, but am getting a bit better as time goes on.

  2. Good stuff, Emily. These articles are important because many don’t know and some don’t care. The way I see this is what would I do if I didn’t have a camera, then use that as a baseline for my behavior.

    Also, seems most don’t know birds/wild animals can recognize individual people they see often so act accordingly.

    • Thank you very much for your wonderful comment Robert. This is a topic that should be brought up on a regular basis as there are always new people entering into the field of wildlife photography and observation that are unaware. But you’re right, there are those that don’t care even if they know.

      So true about wildlife recognizing you they’re smarter than we think!

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