The birdwatchers' code


This page contains 4 reader comments. Click here to view (latest Sun 04/10/15 18:50).

Almost three million adults go birdwatching every year in the UK1. Following The birdwatchers' code is good practice, common sense and should enable us all to enjoy seeing birds. It puts the interests of birds first and respects other people, whether or not they are interested in birds. It applies not just when you are at a nature reserve, but whenever you are watching birds in the UK or abroad. It will be most effective if we lead by example and sensitively challenge the minority of birdwatchers who behave inappropriately.

Five things to remember:

  • Avoid disturbing birds and their habitats – the birds’ interests should always come first.
  • Be an ambassador for birdwatching.
  • Know the law and the rules for visiting the countryside, and follow them.
  • Send your sightings to the County Bird Recorder and www.birdtrack.net.
  • Think about the interests of wildlife and local people before passing on news of a rare bird, especially in the breeding season.

The interests of the bird come first

Birds respond to people in many ways, depending on the species, location and time of year. Disturbance can keep birds from their nests, leaving chicks hungry or enabling predators to take eggs or young. During cold weather or when migrants have just made a long flight, repeatedly flushing birds can mean they use up vital energy that they need for feeding. Intentional or reckless disturbance of some species at or near the nest is illegal in Britain.

Whether your particular interest is photography, ringing, sound-recording or birdwatching, remember that the interests of the bird must always come first.

  • Avoid going too close to birds or disturbing their habitats - if a bird flies away or makes repeated alarm calls, you're too close. And if it leaves, you won’t get a good view.
  • Stay on roads and paths where they exist and avoid disturbing habitat used by birds.
  • Think about your fieldcraft. Disturbance is not just about going too close - a flock of wading birds on the foreshore can be disturbed from a mile away if you stand on the seawall.
  • Repeatedly playing a recording of birdsong to encourage a bird to respond can divert a territorial bird from other important duties, such as feeding its young. Never use playback to attract a species during its breeding season. (See The law, below, in relation to Schedule 1 species in the UK.)

Be an ambassador for birdwatching

Think about your fieldcraft and behaviour, not just so that you can enjoy your birdwatching, but so others can too.

Respond positively to questions from interested passers-by. They may not be birdwatchers yet, but a good view of a bird or a helpful answer may light a spark of interest. Your enthusiasm could start a lifetime's interest in birds and a greater appreciation of wildlife and its conservation.

Consider using local services, such as pubs, restaurants and petrol stations, and public transport. Raising awareness of the benefits to local communities of trade from visiting birdwatchers may, ultimately, help the birds themselves.

Know the rules for visiting the countryside, and follow them

Respect the wishes of local residents and landowners, and don't enter private land without permission unless it is open for public access on foot. Follow the codes on access and the countryside for the place you're walking in (see Access to the countryside, below).

Irresponsible behaviour may cause a land manager to deny access to others (e.g. for necessary survey work). It may also disturb the bird or give birdwatching bad coverage in the media.

Access to the countryside
Legislation provides access for walkers to open country in Britain, and includes measures to protect wildlife. Note that the rules and codes are different in each part of Britain, so plan ahead and make sure you know what you can do.

In England and Wales, access is to land mapped as mountain, moor, heath and down, and to registered common land. However, local restrictions may be in force, so follow the Countryside Code and plan your visit. In England, the Countryside Code and maps showing areas for public access are online at www.countrysideaccess.gov.uk. In Wales, access maps are at www.ccw.gov.uk/tirgofal and the Countryside Code at www.codcefngwlad.org.uk.

In Scotland, access is available to open country and to field margins of enclosed land to reach open country, provided you act in accordance with the Scottish Access Code - see www.outdooraccess-scotland.com.

Although there is no statutory right of access in Northern Ireland, there is lots of information, including the Country Code, at www.countrysiderecreation.com.

Make your sightings count

Add to tomorrow's knowledge of birds by sending your sightings to www.birdtrack.net. This online recording scheme from the BTO, RSPB and BirdWatch Ireland enables you to store all your birdwatching records and support species and site conservation. With one click, you can have you records forwarded automatically to the relevant county recorder.

Send your sightings to county recorders and local bird clubs, a mainstay of bird recording in the UK. Your records are important for local conservation and to build the county's ornithological history. For a list of the County Bird Recorders, visit www.britishbirds.co.uk/countyrecorders or ask at your local library.

Get involved in national monitoring schemes, too, such as the Breeding Bird Survey and the Wetland Bird Survey (see www.bto.org for details).

If you've been birdwatching abroad, visit www.worldbirds.org and give your sightings to the BirdLife International partner in that country. Your data could be vital in protecting the sites and species that you visited.

Rare birds

Mobile phones, telephone and pager services and the internet mean you can now share your sightings instantly. If you discover a rare bird, please bear the following in mind:

  • Consider the potential impact of spreading the news and make an effort to inform the landowner (or, on a nature reserve, the warden) first. Think about whether the site can cope with a large number of visitors and whether sensitive species might be at risk, such as breeding terns, flocks of wading birds or rare plants. The County Bird Recorder or another experienced birdwatcher can often give good advice.
  • On private land, always talk to the landowner first. With a little planning, access can often be arranged.
  • Twitches can raise money for a local reserve, other wildlife project or charity. Consider organising a voluntary collection at access points to the site.
  • Rare breeding birds are at risk from egg-collectors and some birds of prey from persecution. If you discover a rare breeding species that you think is vulnerable, contact the RSPB, which has considerable experience in protecting rare breeding birds, and report it to the County Bird Recorder or the Rare Breeding Birds Panel (www.rbbp.org.uk). Also consider telling the landowner - in most cases, this can ensure that the nest is not disturbed accidentally.

If you have the opportunity to see a rare bird, enjoy it, but don't let your enthusiasm override common sense. In addition to the guidelines above:

  • If you twitch a rare bird, park sensibly, follow instructions and consider making a donation if requested.
  • Don't get too close for a photograph - you'll earn the wrath of everyone else if you flush the bird out of sight.
  • Be patient if the viewing is limited, talk quietly and give others a chance to see the bird too.
  • Do not enter private areas without permission.
  • Birds should never be flushed in important wildlife habitats or where there are other nesting or roosting birds nearby. Birds should not be flushed more frequently than every two hours nor within two hours of sunrise or sunset, so the bird has chance to feed and rest.

The law

Laws protecting birds and their habitats have helped to secure the conservation of many species. They are the result of hard campaigning by generations of birdwatchers. We must ensure that we don't allow the laws to fall into disrepute.

In England, Scotland and Wales, It is a criminal offence to recklessly disturb, at or near the nest, a species listed on Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (see www.rspb.org.uk for a full list). Disturbance could include playback of songs and calls. The courts can impose fines of up to £5,000 and/or a prison sentence of up to six months for each offence.

In Scotland, disturbance of Capercaillie and Ruffs at leks is also an offence.It is a criminal offence to disturb intentionally a bird at or near the nest under the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985.

The government can, for particular reasons such as scientific study, issue licences to individuals that permit limited disturbance, including monitoring of nests and ringing.

It is a criminal offence to destroy or damage, intentionally or recklessly, a special interest feature of a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) or to disturb the wildlife for which the site was notified. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, a fine of up to £20,000 may be imposed by the Magistrates' Court, or an unlimited fine by the Crown Court. In Scotland, the maximum fine on summary conviction is £40,000, or an unlimited fine on conviction on indictment.

If you witness anyone that you suspect may be illegally disturbing or destroying wildlife or habitat, phone the police immediately (ideally, with a six-figure map reference) and report it to the RSPB.

The birdwatchers' code has been produced by a partnership of:

Association of County Recorders and Editors
The British Ornithologists' Union
British Trust for Ornithology
Scottish Ornithologists' Club
Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust
British Birds
Rare Bird Alert
BirdNet Information

1. 2.85 million adults aged over 15 in Britain go birdwatching regularly or occasionally (Target Group Index © BMRB International 2004).

The information in this article was believed correct at the time of writing. BirdGuides accepts no responsibility for errors, or for any consequences of acting on information in the article. The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily shared by BirdGuides Ltd.

hide section Reader comments (4)

This week, on BBC TV, we have been treated to the view of Bill Oddy watching as a tawny owl was encouraged to leave its nest, whereupon the three eggs were removed and one handed to him for several minutes whilst he held it to a micophone so that we could all hear the baby inside. I found this almost unbelievable and think it inconceivable that anyone in their right mind should even contemplate doing such a thing, particularly as the chicks were so close to hatching. Has the BBC lost all...more more
   Paul Lister, 03/02/06 22:31Report inappropriate post Report 
well i dont think its the bbc's fault that some people are evil b*stards who kill amazing creatures. probably a bit naive to think that people might not try to get to the eagle owls but i dont think they knew that some idiot was gonna watch it and go and shoot it. its not like they put the position of the owls nest on a big map and showed it to everyone, you'd have to know where the birds are before some idiot can go do something like this.
   kevside, 21/05/07 13:43Report inappropriate post Report 
On the 23042011 in the evening at the twitch of the Night Heron in Dorset, 3 'men' with camera & Bin's almost lost us the Night Heron by blundering along the other side of the river with rubbish field craft and caused the Heron stress and made many of the Birders on the legal side of the river very unhappy. The light and angle of view is no good where the 'men' were anyway plus it's not a public foot path! If we love birding than we need Birds so please stick to the Stour Valley LNR side and you never know this Bird could be with us for sometime.Good birders follow the Birder's Code.
   eyes, 23/04/11 13:42Report inappropriate post Report 
having been to Spurn on Wednesday & whilst watching goldcrest and trying to take a photo 3 yorks wildlife trust ringers said excuse me as they went past us and then started shouting & clapping to frighten the birds down to the ringing traps. these birds had just arrived and where trying to feed but instead where frightened out of their wits where is the effics & bird watchers code for these ringers, if the birds fly in to the traps fair enough but the recovery rate for ringed birds is so poor maybe its time to stop ringing & use real science with transmitters
   Steve Smith, 04/10/15 18:50Report inappropriate post Report 

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