Birding Etiquette and How to Be an Ethical Birder

By: Three Rivers Staff

May 23, 2022

Category: Big Year of Birds

As you join in our Big Year of Birds, we hope you’re getting excited about birds and bird-watching both in the parks and throughout the region. Whether you’re a new birder or a seasoned birder, it’s important to take care of these creatures we share space with. The main things to remember when birding are: respect the birds; respect their habitat; and respect other people who are using the area. Doing this helps make birds feel safe so that they will continue to live in and visit our parks for years to come.

A person wearing a grey visor looks upwards through binoculars while birding. Green leaves cover the branches of trees in the background.

Situational Examples of How You Can Be an Ethical Birder

Birders can get a bad reputation based on the actions of those who don’t follow or are unaware of ethical behavior. Here are a few examples of unethical birding behavior and how they can be avoided.

Keeping your distance

Our natural human instinct is to be curious and want to get closer to a nest with young birds, but an excess of birders or photographers in a space can lead to numerous problems. We have had experiences, especially with owlets, where news of nests near a trail have drawn crowds of birders and photographers alike. These crowds often blocked the trail and prevented other park guests from easily hiking in the area. Some visitors wanted to get as close as possible, while others recognized the importance of keeping a safe distance. This often leads to interactions between visitors that can be stressful to the adult birds and the young ones.

Instead of crowding closer to the nest, it’s best for watchers and photographers to keep a safe distance from the nest tree and keep the trail open, respecting both the birds and people at the park. You’ll know if you’re too close if the birds seem to be agitated. This can look like mother birds regularly flying near or circling the nest while calling.

Photographers wanting to get the perfect shot should set up a safe distance from the nest and wait for the adult birds to naturally fly to and from the nest and for the young ones to naturally show themselves.

Observing trail and area closures

Various parks in Three Rivers are home to bird species of special concern as designated by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. To help protect these birds, especially during nesting season, the Park District closes select hiking trails or general areas within a park. Birders have still entered these areas, feeling that they weren’t disrupting anything because they were being careful and just wanted to see the nesting birds. However, it’s important to stay out of closed sections because nesting birds are sensitive, and disturbing them can cause the birds to abandon their nests or lead predators to find their nests.

It is important for everyone to refrain from entering closed areas of the park for any reason, and to stay on open trail and to watch for signs for trail and area closures. Rest assured that you can still hear and see birds from open trails without disturbing the birds in their nesting habitats.

Four sets of feet in sneakers walking on a mulched trail, with green foliage on both sides.

General Ethical Birding Guidelines

Below are some basic rules for birding, inspired by eBird’s guidelines.


  • Keep your distance — especially near nests — to avoid agitating birds. If you notice their behavior changing when they notice you, you may need to step away. 
  • Leave your dog at home. If you must bring your dog along while birding, be sure to keep them on a 6-foot leash. 
  • Avoid pishing (making squeaky noises to attract birds) or using playbacks of actual bird calls, especially in spaces with many birds or sensitive species.
  • Be aware of sensitive and threatened bird species, which can be especially vulnerable to disturbance. Do not share their nest locations.


  • Stay on designated trails.
  • Do not remove or trample existing habitat.
  • Leave the area cleaner than you found it; pick up litter.
  • Do not leave markers or flagging.


  • Stay on designated trails. Be considerate of others you encounter.
  • Encourage beginning birders and share your knowledge with them.
  • If you lead a birding group, make sure your group is not too large for the space you’re visiting and that it does not interferes with others using that area. Educate all group members on ethical birding practices.
  • Respect private property. Know the boundaries where you are, look for private property signs and only enter private property if you’ve gotten permission.

While in the parks, if you see someone who is exhibiting unethical birding behavior, don’t confront the birder. Instead, report it to park staff. 

Other Resources

For more information on ethical birding, check out the following ethical birding guidelines.

About the Author

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