On June 23, a photographer posted pictures of a family of black-naped orioles in Pingshan County in the northern Hebei Province.
In the photo, posted on China’s microblogging platform Weibo, two adult orioles — distinguishable by their golden bodies with black wings and tails, and a black band through the eyes — stood in the nest while the chicks craned their necks, waiting to feed.
Their bright colors make them the perfect subject for amateur bird photographers. But this frame was almost too perfect.
On the same Weibo post, the photographer joked about how he had obsessively trimmed the nest, removing every last unruly twig until it resembled the head of a spoon. In a video he posted on his Douyin — the Chinese version of TikTok — account, he had clearly pruned the nest of a family of Indian paradise flycatchers: the ends of the twigs were sharp like barbs.
Trimming nests exposes their inhabitants not only to the camera’s lens, but also to the sun and the eyes of predators. Staging these photos, taken in celebration of new life, have ironically led to premature deaths.
A photo posted by a hobbyist photographer shows a family of black-naped orioles in Pingshan County, 2021. The photographer pruned the nest before shooting. From Weibo
Three days later, a bird conservation blogger posted on Weibo a picture of the same nest from the Douyin video but taken by another photographer on a later date.
This one was far from perfect: At least one chick had died, and the adult bird was seen removing the carcass. There is speculation online that it may have died from exposure to the sun.
The Weibo post has since been shared more than 10,000 times and triggered widespread outrage against acts of pruning nests for better photographs.
But this isn’t an isolated practice: Several long-term bird watchers and photography enthusiasts cite similar examples.
In May 2017, at the Nanhui Wetlands Park in Shanghai, the vegetation near a reed parrotbill’s nest was cut down and the bird’s chicks were nowhere to be seen; in April 2020, a photographer trimmed away all the bramble around the nest of a family of long-tailed minivets at Heilongtan Park in Kunming, leading to the death of all four during the rains a few days later.
It’s not just the pruning of nests. Over the last few years, needles and wire hidden in food as bait have maimed countless birds while others have died from exhaustion after being chased in cars, or have been accidentally killed after being captured and taken back to studios.
And yet, members on Birdnet, one of China’s main online communities for bird enthusiasts, uphold the bird’s “natural state” above all else. A bird enthusiast who used to set up photos in a studio nonetheless continues to stage ostensibly “natural” scenes outdoors with titles on Birdnet like “A little kingfisher in the rain, preparing to swoop down on its prey” or “A crane acting coy.”
Amid continuing incidents of bird injuries and deaths, discussions on a code of conduct have yet to yield a consensus within China’s bird photography community. The delay exposes an obvious paradox in the bird watching community, wherein some photographers are seemingly indifferent to the deaths of the very creatures they purport to love.
Photographers congregate after a rare robin sighting in winter in Beijing, Jan. 11, 2019. Zhao Rong/Qianlong/People Visual
Behind the scenes
In July this year, two grebes were building a nest among the lotus leaves in the southwestern corner of the central pond at Yuyuantan Park in Beijing. The waterbird, less than half the size of a wild duck, has a plump body with a straight, sharp beak.
This year, the lotus leaves along the side of the pond failed to grow as tall as they usually do, leaving the bird’s nest, only a few meters from the shore trail, directly exposed to passers-by.
“You see, grebes are responsible creatures: when a couple builds its nest, the male and female spare no efforts to pluck the grass. Once built, one hatches the eggs, while the other hunts for food,” says a bird photographer, who lives near the park.
“They alternate between the two roles every twenty minutes. They’re not like mandarin ducks — where only the female looks after the eggs, while the male is free to run off and play.”
The young pair of grebes began nesting just as the small lotuses were budding. But tragedy soon followed.
Two consecutive nests — one with three eggs and another with four — were destroyed by the rain. And when a third nest had been built and new eggs laid, waves from the park’s four patrol speed boats inundated it with water.
A professional nature photographer who asked to be identified only as Yan witnessed it all. “The mother swam in frantic circles around the nest as she witnessed it and her babies slowly sinking to the bottom,” he says.
A bird swims in a pond in Handan, Hebei province, Dec. 24, 2020. Jin Hua/People Visual
The grebes had to start over from scratch.
So under a lotus leaf near the shore, the two grebes began painstakingly weaving another — their fourth — grass nest. But, before it was complete, the female laid her egg on a nearby lotus leaf. “She couldn’t hold it any longer,” says Yan.
Over the course of several days, Yan spent every morning documenting the trials and tribulations of this family of grebes. Most recently, he documented their progress on July 12, during a major storm.
With an umbrella stuck between his neck and shoulder, he captured on camera the grebes desperately protecting their eggs amid the downpour that soaked his pants and shoes. He still often wonders how the grebes would have protected the eggs during a hailstorm.
But not all bird photographers share Yan’s staunch moral compass.
And while it’s hard to count the number of birds injured or killed by careless photographers, Sen Lin — who developed an interest in hiking, birdwatching, and photography in the 1980s — recalls an incident that exposes a darker side of the community.
It was about five years ago, when someone spotted a Japanese robin at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. This migratory bird, which resembles a sparrow with prettier feathers and has a crisp, melodious call, almost never flies through Beijing on its way south.
But, only a few days after this initial spotting, someone took a closeup of the bird, showing the head of a needle jutting out of its throat. It was easy to deduce that the bird had swallowed the needle when it fell for one photographer’s bait.
No one knows what fate the robin eventually met.
A photographer inspects his camera roll at Yuyantan Park in Beijing, Aug. 21, 2020. Zhao Naiming/Qianlong/People Visual
Turning a blind eye
While the photographer who shot the black-naped orioles in Pingshan openly joked about pruning the nest, many others — whether they shoot in studios or stage scenes outdoors using bait — refuse to acknowledge their crude methods.
At Yuyuantan Park, another bird photographer mentioned a photo she had seen in a WeChat group, which showed several eggs in a nest, with no branches in the way. The photo was taken from overhead.
Suspicious that it was shot without disturbing the nest, she wrote a polite message on WeChat — China’s social app — asking the photographer how they had managed to take the photo. Her multiple messages received no response.
On another occasion at the Laoshan City Leisure Park, just 10 kilometers west of Yuyuantan Park, a bird enthusiast who asked to be identified only as Cai was photographing a family of Eurasian scops owls living in a walnut tree. In the photo, three fluffy owlets all look in her direction, their eyes wide open and alert.
But Cai wasn’t the only one drawn to the owls. Whenever a rare species is spotted, it takes little time to circulate like wildfire across WeChat groups. From there, it’s only a matter of time before the horde of tripods appear.
“The moment the owls make the slightest movement — even if it’s just opening their eyes — you can hear a dozen shutters go off at the same time,” stated a media report on July 8. That night, someone even shone their flashlight directly into the owls’ eyes until a park employee intervened.
An Eurasian scops owl after being rescued in Zhengzhou, Henan province, April 2020. People Visual
For this city-dwelling nocturnal bird of prey, resting during the day is essential. But across several photos taken in daylight, their eyes were wide open — glaring at the lens, almost as if they were giving a warning.
Cai would prefer to interpret their unwavering stares as a matter of sheer luck, rather than the result of any disturbances she may have caused.
According to Yan, luring birds with bait isn’t completely negative, but he claims to hold himself to a higher standard. “If a trap is needed, I look for food from their natural habitat, so behavioral patterns aren’t affected,” he says. “You can’t write off the entire bird photography community just because of a few extreme cases.”
Not every bird photographer is an experienced professional who travels across the country like Yan. Many are active only near their own homes or within their cities, and they share their work with fellow enthusiasts on WeChat groups and on forums.
These amateur enthusiasts get validation from the approval of others who share their interest. Li Qiang, former president of the Friends of Nature Wild Bird Society, once remarked that regardless of what inspires them to pick up their cameras, bird photographers all share the same goal: to take beautiful, unobscured pictures of birds up-close.
But not all amateur photographers who snap these photos necessarily disturbed the birds themselves — they may have simply taken advantage of an opportunity that someone else set up.
“Not all enthusiasts interfere with bird activity, but in this group of two hundred or so photographers, just a few is already way too many,” says Sen Lin.
Over the years, Sen has seen people prodding a long-eared owl at the Temple of Heaven, and has witnessed other photographers blocking kingfishers’ nests at the zoo to stop them from hiding.
Every time he’s tried to stop these individuals, they have turned indignant. “I take photos of birds for enjoyment, and I’ll do whatever I have to in order to have fun,” is the usual retort.
And on most occasions, Sen has had little support from others. “Some bird photographers on the sidelines will think, ‘Someone has set up the photo for me so I can have fun without any effort. Why should I go out of my way to upset them?’” he says.
For him, littering and other forms of environmentally destructive behavior is even more rampant than disturbing the creatures. “Whenever there are more than five people taking photos, there are cigarette butts all over the place, as well as fast-food bags and drink bottles on the ground,” says Sen.
For a while, Sen stopped focusing on photography during his outings. He says he would set up his tripod and camera and then go around picking up cigarette butts in the vicinity. Once, he picked up more than 400 cigarette stubs within a radius of fewer than 20 meters.
“Do you have too much time on your hands?” someone asked him. “Isn’t it normal for cigarette stubs to be on the ground?”
Once a source of great joy, bird-watching and photography are now a source of resentment for Sen. By the lake, he’s noticed more and more garbage piling up in photographers’ hide-outs, as well as more sparse vegetation because of the increased foot traffic.
While photographing wallcreepers at the Fangshan Shidu Scenery Spot in Beijing, he filled up three whole 25-kg garbage bags. On another occasion, while photographing birds of prey at the Miyun Reservoir on the outskirts of Beijing, he drove behind a group of photographers and picked up after them. At the end of the day, he’d filled up four woven bags with 25kg of garbage each.
On the same trip, he saw a Eurasian eagle-owl die of exhaustion after bird photographers continually chased after it to capture an image of it taking flight.
Dispirited by the unending apathy, Sen walked away from the community about four years ago. He hasn’t taken any photos of birds since.
A photographer sets an apple as bait in order to attract wild birds in Jinan, Shandong province, March 2016. People Visual
Standards and ethics
Executive Director of the China Birdwatching Association Guan Xiangyu underscores that there are certain unspoken rules and limits established through common practice.
The most important is to maintain a certain distance from birds to avoid alerting them to your presence. But this rule is complex: what constitutes a safe distance depends on the time of day and year, as well as the species of bird in question, and may even vary between individual birds of the same species.
“Given how crucial the breeding season is to the livelihood of bird species, taking and sharing photos of nests is ill-advised,” says Guan. Birds need their nests to remain a quiet and safe environment.
Gathering around to take photos discourages adult birds from feeding their young, while pruning nests to set up photos drastically increases the likelihood that they’ll be killed by the elements or natural predators. Even crows and magpies, who are not birds of prey, sometimes snatch other birds’ eggs and chicks.
“Furthermore, in the event that birdwatchers spot relatively rare species currently in their breeding season, or which are easily startled, they should only share their sighting after a certain period of time has passed,” he says.
In early 2021, following media reports that a pair of great bustards were spotted in Beijing’s Tongzhou District, bird photographers immediately flocked to the area.
Every day, dozens of cars were parked next to the field where the bustards had set up their temporary home. With cameras and tripods in tow, photographers crowded around and even chased the two rare and endangered animals, which are protected at the national level.
Later, someone observed that the male bustard’s chest was bleeding. Though no one was certain how he had been injured, the photographers continued to chase the birds in the deserted wheat fields.
Tian Cheng has been photographing birds for five or six years, during which time he has had a few curious encounters. Once, when he pointed his lens at a red-billed blue magpie chick, the bird’s parents began to caw loudly at him.
Another time, in the mountains around Beijing, a yellow-rumped flycatcher landed about ten meters from him but flew away the moment he raised his camera. And at Juma River in Hebei, when he saw a gaggle of invasive birdwatchers chase a plumbeous water redstart along the shore, he overheard a parent tell a child the bird “wasn’t afraid of people.”
He recalls taking a photo of a horned lark; though it didn’t strike him as remarkable at the time, he noticed later that the bird’s expression as it stared into the camera was almost one of anger.
“If a person photographs and watches birds for a decade or two without realizing that their behavior is disturbing them, what does that say about them?” says Tian.
He has told others to maintain a safe distance while bird watching — which offers temporary reassurance, but the behavior of certain birds has continually reminded him that “the safe distance is set only from the perspective of humans. They may think they’re not harming the birds, but that may not be how the birds themselves feel.”
A photo shows a damaged reed parrotbill nest at Nanhui Wetlands Park in Shanghai, May 2017. The protective vegetation around the nest has been trampled down and the bird’s chicks are nowhere to be seen. From @猫耳鹰夫人 on Weibo
In China, bird photography regulations are slowly improving. In June 2020, the Beijing Municipal Regulations for Wildlife Protection came into effect. These regulations clearly forbid “chasing, disturbing, feeding, baiting (for photography purposes), creating high decibel noises, flashing spotlights, and other acts that interfere with the life and reproduction of wild animals.”
Other municipalities — such as Xiaogan, in Hubei Province; Taiyuan, in Shanxi Province; and Chifeng, in Inner Mongolia — have also set their own restrictions for bird photography, especially when it comes to the practice of short-distance photography during breeding seasons.
In late May 2020, bird photographers were spotted planting branches with bait attached with sharp wire into the flower beds at the Beijing Botanical Garden.
It forced the garden’s security head to issue photographers a stern warning: “Using insects to lure birds for photographs is highly illegal... We will be filing a report to the forest rangers and local police department.”
Since then, incidents of luring and baiting at the Beijing Botanical Garden have drastically decreased, but the bird photography community at large is still in disagreement on whether such acts should be tolerated out of regulators’ field of vision.
Regarding the case of the pruned oriole nest, an active photographer on Weibo wrote: “All photos of birds feeding their young in their nests require prior pruning — otherwise, how would we set up those photos? How would we earn a living? Just let people have their fun... After all, humans are naturally selfish animals.”
Yan, Sen Lin, Cai, and Tian Cheng are pseudonyms.
A version of this article originally appeared in Liquid Youth. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and published with permission.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Li Yijuan, Xue Yongle, and Apurva.
(Header image: Photographers set up shots of Eurasian hobbies at Yuyantan Park in Beijing, Aug. 21, 2020. Zhao Naiming/Qianlong/People Visual)