Purdue University Graduate School
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Understanding Human Disturbance to Birds at the Intersection of Birding and Bird Photography

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posted on 2020-12-15, 01:35 authored by Brennan G RadulskiBrennan G Radulski
Human disturbance to birds is a subject of concern for bird conservation. Bird recreationalists, such as birders and bird photographers, who actively seek out birds, are identified as a broad group of people that contribute to bird disturbance. There are few studies on birders’ and bird photographers’ perceptions and behaviors related to bird disturbance, and these studies have conflicting results. Furthermore, little research identifies why bird recreationalists engage in behavior that disturbs birds. Understanding perceptions and behavior related to bird disturbance and the context behind engaging in this behavior is important for creating comprehensive solutions for preventing disturbance to birds. The purpose of this thesis is to create a typology of bird recreationalists, based on whether they engage in birding or bird photography as primary activities; identify the socio-demographic characteristics among bird recreationalists that are connected to an increased likelihood to engage in behavior that disturbs birds; assess perceptions of blame for disturbance to birds; and identify how motivations, barriers, challenges and trade-offs are associated with following ethical birding and bird photography guidelines.

The thesis used an online survey and in-person interviews of birders and bird photographers in two Midwestern states in the U.S., Illinois and Indiana, to achieve these objectives. Three sub-groups of bird recreationalists were identified through the online survey: individuals who only engage in birding; individuals who primarily engage in birding and secondarily, bird photography; and individuals who primarily engage in bird photography and secondarily, birding. Our findings indicate that individuals who 1) are male, 2) only engage in birding, 3) maintain life lists, 4) have more birds on their life lists, 5) can identify more birds by sight, 6) have more years of experience or 7) have a higher level of achievement-oriented motivation are more likely to engage in potentially harmful behaviors to birds. Additionally, quantitative findings suggest that birders and bird photographers may not perceive themselves as main contributors to bird disturbance.

The qualitative portion of the research identifies multiple ethical birding and bird photography guidelines that recreationalists found challenging to follow that had both ecological (e.g., maintaining distance) and social (e.g., respectfully educating others) implications. Recreationalists identified listing, photographing and seeing birds as key motivations to breaking ethical guidelines. Barriers to following guidelines included apathy, ignorance and improper technology. Finally, recreationalists identified bad photography and missed experiences as major trade-offs associated with following ethical guidelines. he concepts explored in this thesis research provide important management implications for natural resource managers and stakeholders in bird conservation and suggest a further need for examining bird recreationalists’ decision-making around bird disturbance.


Degree Type

  • Master of Science


  • Forestry and Natural Resources

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Dr. Linda S. Prokopy

Additional Committee Member 2

Dr. John B. Dunning

Additional Committee Member 3

Dr. Zhao Ma