Wildlife Disturbance: Why Now and Why Does It Matter?

Wildlife sightings and photographs can evoke a sense of wonder and delight, educate, and lead to a life-long love of nature and commitment to conservation. However, more and more we are encountering wildlife disturbance when visiting local parks, and we are hearing similar experiences from others. Just as more littering occurs in an area that is already littered, this troubling behaviour could increase further if it is seen as the norm. This article will briefly outline the nature and significance of wildlife disturbance and some of the major contributing factors.

Our own viewing and photography practices continue to evolve as we learn more about this issue. Even if one is ‘merely’ taking advantage of a viewing or photography opportunity that someone else’s disturbance has set up, one’s participation can also cause harm and can encourage others to gather round and/or to initiate disturbance elsewhere. It has been argued that non-lethal disturbance by humans is analogous to predation risk and, while much is still unknown about species-specific impacts, some common forms and potential effects of disturbance are summarized in Table 1.

Table 1: Common Forms of Wildlife Disturbance and Potential Harm

Forms of Disturbance*  Potential Harm
Approaching too closely Staying more than a few minutes Speaking loudly Presence of large groups Presence or actions that cause a change in behaviorStress; disrupted feeding and sleep; nest abandonment; flushing from cover; exhaustion; starvation
Vocalizing or playing calls, including prey callsStress; energy wasted chasing/fleeing from phantom intruders, predator exposure; time diverted from feeding; reduced number of offspring
Flushing from coverStress; disrupted feeding and sleep; exposure to predators; less energy to hunt and evade predators
FollowingStress; disrupted feeding and sleep; death from exhaustion or starvation
Removing nearby vegetation or nest material for better viewingStress; nest abandonment; death from increased exposure to predators, sun, or cold
Walking off-trailReduced territory and nesting sites; exposure to predators; invasive species spread
Baiting with food or luresDependence; injury or death from bait wires, pins, or lines; collision with nearby vehicles and power lines; habituation leading to killing of nuisance animals
Presence near nestStress; nest abandonment; delayed feeding and growth of young; starvation
Using portable lightsStress, nest abandonment; disrupted feeding and sleep

*A discussion of measures to mitigate disturbance is beyond the scope of this article.

The stresses from disturbance are occurring at a time when many species of wildlife are already very vulnerable. There are declines in many populations due to factors such as habitat loss, climate change, pesticide use, invasive species, pollution, reduced insect biomass, outdoor pets, and collisions with vehicles, buildings, and power lines. Adding to these pressures are the increased numbers of park users, birders, photographers, and other outdoor enthusiasts, especially since the onset of the pandemic. Many of these individuals have limited knowledge of the habitat requirements, normal behaviour, and stress behaviours of wildlife.

Yet another factor contributing to disturbance is the routine sharing of locations of wildlife, especially birds, on the internet through such forums as eBird, Listservs, Facebook groups, photo sharing websites, and other applications. The importance of comprehensive reporting for conservation efforts is noted by eBird and they do maintain a sensitive species list as well as guidelines for reporting sensitive species. However, users may not be familiar with the sensitive species list or guidelines. Furthermore, the list may not reflect current species disturbance in a particular location if these concerns have not been reported to the administrators. Several other internet sites have adopted ethical codes and/or banned photos and locations of nesting sites and species at risk and any images obtained through baiting. It is hoped that these precautions will become universal.

Even without location reports, the proliferation of wildlife images on social media contributes to disturbance since views, likes, and positive reviews of images serve as rewards for close-up ‘action’ shots—the types of photos more likely to have involved disturbance. Viewers are often scrolling through images on mobile devices and aren’t drawn into a thumbnail unless it is a close-up image with isolation of the subject from the background. Similarly, judging criteria of nature photography competitions usually reward images with a nature ‘story’ and/or WOW! factor. Images showing wildlife from a distance in their habitat are often less favourably scored. Here too there are some signs of growing awareness of ethical photography practices. For example, the prestigious Canadian Association for Photographic Art requires nature competition entrants to read and comply with their nature ethics code and all submissions are reviewed by at least two judges for compliance.

Changes in cameras over time have also had an impact on disturbance. Equipment advances have meant that wildlife photography is no longer restricted to a small number of skilled professionals and naturalists operating in blinds or hides. Now medium-income amateurs can afford cameras that are able to shoot decent wildlife images and many outdoor enthusiasts also try to capture images of wildlife with their cellphones. Even before the digital age, the introduction of the single lens reflex camera transformed wildlife photography by allowing for the use of telephoto lenses. Then digital cameras brought much greater light sensitivity and fast shutter speed capability as well as continually improving noise reduction, optical quality, autofocus, and image stabilization. Perhaps most important, digital cameras allow for instant results and repeated and prolonged shooting without extra expense. With repeated shooting, even beginners can occasionally capture a good image. An enhanced understanding of the nature, causes, and effects of wildlife vulnerability and disturbance provides an opportunity for reflection by individuals and organizations. It is hoped that, together with the efforts of the TFN wildlife protection committee and ethical nature photography group and other like-minded groups, this can lead to changes in attitudes, behaviours, and policy—and ultimately to better protection of wildlife.

To Learn More:
Abrahamse, W. (2020 December). Encouraging pro-environmental behaviours: What works,
what doesn’t, and why. Virtual Lecture.

Dato, A. S. (2014 September). Birding and bird photography ethics. Photography and Birds

Frid, A. and L. M. Dill. (2002). Human-caused disturbance stimuli as a form of predation risk.
Conservation Ecology.

International League of Conservation Photographers. (2021). Practical considerations related to
iLCP’s ethical principles.

Numerous Respondents. (2015 October). How wildlife photography has changed – (responses
to a) student query.

Peck M. reported by O’Mahoney, M. (2018 April). Ethics in wildlife photography. Toronto Field
Naturalists Newsletter, Number 635.

Rosenberg, K. V. et al. (2019 September). Decline of the North American avifauna.

Team eBird. (2017 November). Sensitive species in eBird.

Zanette, L. Y. et al. (2011). Perceived predation risk reduces the number of offspring songbirds produce
per year.

Ontario Nature’s Blog – A Nature Viewer’s Code of Ethics: Do’s and Don’ts.

Toronto Nature Now Episode 162: Wildlife Disturbance and Ethics in Nature.

By the TFN Wildlife Protection Committee.

Toronto Field Naturalists wishes to acknowledge this Land through which we walk. For thousands of years, the Land has been shared by the Wendat, the Haudenosaunee, and the Anishinaabe. Toronto is situated on the Land within the Toronto Purchase, Treaty 13, the traditional and treaty Lands of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation. This territory is also part of the Dish with One Spoon Wampum, a covenant agreement between Anishinaabeg, Haudenosaunee, Wendat peoples and allied nations to peaceably share the land and all its resources. Today, the Land is home to peoples of numerous nations. We are all grateful to have the opportunity to continue to care for and share the beauty of this Land.