The ethics of using flash photography with animals and birds is something which I have spent considerable time researching before I comfortably employed these techniques with hummingbirds. I am highly conscientious of being a good steward of our natural world and wanted to understand any impact this method of photography may have on birds before engaging in this type of photography.
Of the current information I located on the web, there are diverse opinions ranging from the most liberal to conservative viewpoints, but little to nothing that can substantiate those opinions. There is a genuine lack of peer-reviewed, published scientific studies available on this topic. I spent hours researching the abstracts and virtually none of the articles I located involve birds and flash photography. That said, I found a few studies that looked at fish and reptiles. Those studies indicated daytime use of flashes resulted in little or no negative impact.
It is important to note that though hummingbirds were not included in the study, the intensity of light used in the studies (cited below) appears far greater than that which my hummingbird photography requires.
I have provided the results of my lengthy meta-search of the literature. This resulted in the following two articles which most closely aligned with my interests:
Huang, B., Lubarsky, K., Teng, T., & Blumstein, D.T. (2015). Take only pictures, leave only…fear? The effects of photography on the West Indian anole Anolis cristatellus. Current Zoology 57(1), 77-82.
De Brauwer, M., Gordon, L.M., Shalders, T.C., Saunders, Archer, M., Harvey, E.S., … Mcllwain, J. (2019). Behavioural and pathomorphological impacts of flash photography on benthic fishes. Scientific Reports, 9 (Article 748). Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-37356-2
I also reviewed the work of Dr. Graham Martin (Professor Emeritus, University of Birmingham and a leading Ornithologist focused on avian vision and sensory science) and Dr. Jack Pettigrew, (Professor Emeritus and Director of the Vision, Touch and Hearing Research Center at the University of Queensland in Australia. Both are leading researchers who have expressed possible concern for flashing nocturnal creatures such as owls, but I have been unable to locate any research or commentary which suggests low-power flashes are detrimental during daylight hours for owls or other birds.
Lastly, I have my own observations:
• The hummingbirds that come in to feed do not appear disturbed by the flashes. In fact, they return frequently throughout the day to feed at the setups.
• On very few occasions I have observed a mild “startle” response at a flash, but the bird goes back to feeding in less than a second and subsequently makes continued return trips to the feeders without further startling behavior.
• One final note, I do not employ high-speed repeated flashing when shooting (e.g., 3-4+ flashes per second). Though the technology is capable of doing so, I choose not to out of an abundance of caution. This allows the bird to leave the situation without further flashing should it find the conditions aversive.
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