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4105Common Black-Hawk (ethical challenges)

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  • Jeff Davis
    Jun 6, 2005
      Dear birders --

      Stan Moore, a raptor biologist and conservationist from Marin County,
      kindly allowed me to forward this letter he sent to the Ornithology
      e-mail group (ORNITH-L).


      Recently, a report came to my attention of a rare
      sighting of a common black hawk (Buteogallus
      anthracinus) in my area. I am not a birder and not
      experienced in what happens on the ground whan a rare
      bird is sighted and the alert goes out to the birding
      community. But since this rare bird was a raptor and
      was found in my study area, I went to locate it. The
      directions I was given to the viewing location were
      public rights of way, but my luck was bad at first and
      I did not see the bird the first trip out.

      Later, I saw other places which might give better
      opportunities for viewing the black hawk, but they
      were on private land. I drove onto one property, a
      dairy farm, and asked permission to look for the bird
      from their property. The son of the owner was very
      direct. He said that the owner was not willing to
      allow strangers on the property for liability reasons.
      The owner did not want to risk a potential lawsuit
      due to someone accidentally injuring himself on the
      property, and the decision by the owner was firm. I
      thanked him for hearing my request and left the
      property and honored the request. On another day, I
      happened to meet that young man's father, the owner,
      and he repeated the view, and added that the dairy
      maintains liability insurance, and the insurance
      carrier has been trying to find reasons to raise
      liability insurance prices or drop coverage
      altogether. Thus, it is a real issue for this farmer
      not to allow any strangers, including birders on the
      property. HOWEVER, the owner told me that he had
      found birders entering his property without permission
      and had had to ask that they leave. One birder was
      actually swarmed by a group of wild bees and fled the
      area without his scope, and was encountered by the
      owner on his way out due to the bees! That birder had
      the embarassing task of having to return to collect
      his gear after the bees were no longer an imminent

      This situation has caused me to think about the ethics
      of viewing rare birds, as related to dealing with
      private landowners, and I have met other landowners
      which have added perspective to the situation.

      I believe that basically you can have three results
      when attempting to obtain permission to enter private
      property to view birds, and each situation offers its
      own opportunities and ethical ramifications.

      First, if the property owner is not home or available
      to grant permission to enter their land, the birder
      has no authority to enter the property and should not
      do so. Yesterday, I approached a property owner in
      the areas where the common black hawk is located, and
      told her that I was seeking an opportunity to view the
      hawk in order to watch it forage, and to try to
      determine how it was hunting and what it was feeding
      on. I told her I had already viewed the bird up close
      on another propery, and named her neighbor who allowed
      me in, but this lady's property offered a potentially
      better opportunity to watch the bird forage. I asked
      the lady if she was aware of the rare hawk. She
      replied that indeed she was aware of it, and that she
      was quite upset over the presence of the hawk because
      birders have been entering her property without
      permission. She said that just the day before she had
      been in her own back yard and looked over to see men
      with giant spotting scopes walking across her fenced
      property as though they were on a public park. And
      this was not the first time. The lady was willing to
      discuss my request with her husband, but she made
      clear that any agreement would be for a one-time-only
      visit of specified duration, and would not give me
      privileges to invite others to the property or to
      return without future permission. I let the lady know
      that I understood her position completely, and looked
      forward to hearing her decision in a couple of days.
      I did have opportunity to show the lady some photos I
      had taken of the common black hawk, and quickly
      realized that none of the birders who entered her
      property ever bothered to show her any information on
      the rare bird. She saw my photos and said, "Oh, I
      guess it does look sort of like a turkey vulture"!
      And when she said I might be able to return next week,
      she expressed interest in seeing more of my photos of
      other birds and sharing them with her husband, too.

      So, one possibility of seeking permission to visit a
      property is to not encounter the owner, and another is
      to hear a negative response to permission to enter
      private land to view a rare bird. In either case, if
      the birder has not received express permission to
      enter a private property, ethics requires that the
      birder not enter the property, not jump a fence, not
      sneak on the property for a peak, etc.

      But what if the owner does grant permission. One
      owner did grant me permission immediately, and her
      adult son even gave me a tour of the property and
      guided me to the perched bird! I was very thankful,
      and I showed my thanks by (1) making sure that I did
      not abuse my privilege by assuming that I had blanket
      permission to return at my leisure to look again or
      invite others to see the bird, and (2) I expressed my
      appreciation with small gifts. I gave the property
      owner a small, paperbound book on birds of California,
      and I brought back duplicate photos of my best photos
      of the common black hawk. Later, when I met an adult
      relative of the first owner, I found out that he had
      great interest in preserving the habitat, and was
      engaged in seeking funding for a habitat
      preservation/restoration campaign, and he saw the
      value of having a rare bird on that property from a
      public relations perspective. He wanted scientific
      information on the species, and I brought him as a
      gift my personal copy of the Birds of North America
      species account on Buteogallus anthracinus. And I
      offered my support for his project. But I made it
      clear that I would not abuse the relationship by
      presuming that I was welcome on the property at my own
      discretion, but would seek permission to return and/or
      to invite any others to the property.

      I believe that in addition to ethics in dealing with
      landowners, there is a great benefit in extending
      common courtesy and sincere show of appreciation for
      the generosity and cooperation of landowners. Two of
      the three landowners I interviewed in connection with
      the presence of a rare common black hawk expressed
      irritation at having negative experiences with
      birders. For many birders, viewing birds in a given
      location is a once in a lifetime matter. For me, in
      my area, I want to have ongoing relationships with
      landowners in connection with my long-term study. But
      even if it was a one-time deal, I believe it is best
      to behave ethically while dealing with private
      property owners, even if it means sacrificing the
      ability to access viewing opportunities from time to

      For those interested in seeing a couple of my photos
      of the common black hawk that showed up in my area,
      Joe Morlan was kind enough to place two photos on his
      rare bird webpage, which anyone can view at:


      Happy ethical birding!

      Stan Moore San Geronimo, CA stangabboon@...


      Although birders generally behave in a manner that complies with ABA's
      Code of Ethics (http://www.americanbirding.org/abaethics.htm),
      sometimes the thrill of the hunt for a rare bird overrides good
      judgment and common courtesy. I do believe, however, that the few
      individuals who have such ethical lapses are statistical outliers.
      Every hobby and profession has them. Nonetheless, we all need to be
      reminded to behave in a way that best represents our group.

      Jeff Davis
      Prather, CA
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