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Thread: Does flash harm birds?

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    Default Does flash harm birds?

    I tried to see if there is a previous thread on the subject and could not find one specifically for the topic.

    Recently on a state listserv, several non photographer birders objected to the use of flash at a popular local park where a bubbler is used an areas as one of the attractions for birds.

    One photographer/birder stated that flash was harmful and that the use of flash was a crutch.

    He went on to expound that with modern cameras/equipment and proper techinique and proper post processing skills that the use of flash is unnecessary. Essentially he thought that flash is the resort for the unskilled.

    One participant in the discussion wanted regulations aimed at only photographers and to ban flash photography at the location.
    The location is a popular public park and hosts not only birders, photographers,joggers, skateboarders but folks just out to enjoy a day in a somewhat natural area that is surrounded by a large urban landscape.

    The only source that seemed to be based on any scientific date was here http://www.naturescapes.net/042004/do0404.htm

    There was also discussions on the use of bird calls etc but the main issue was flash photography

    I wondered what the experiences of members of this forum would be regarding this issue.
    Last edited by Bill Coatney; 05-21-2010 at 09:40 AM.

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    BPN Member Dan Brown's Avatar
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    I've been using flash for many years and haven't seen it harm any bird or anything else for that matter, even nocturnal critters. It takes an extra set of skills to use flash properly and I believe it is a very useful tool, especially for bird photography. Flash is no more of a "crutch" than the ability to use mutiple ISO's one after the other is or VR or AF or automatic exposure, the list goes on!!!

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    This has been discussed to death in the past with the only conclusion that everyone goes with their own opinion. Many make the assumption that if THEY feel it doesn't hurt the bird or bother the bird than it's ok. So it''s difficult to make a judgment call when the thing in question cannot directly speak for itself (the subject being flashed). It boils down to whatever a person believes. And people believe what they want to believe. Strong desire for something to be true can create a new reality.

    Life is an opinion........(Marcus Aurelious).

    Personally I have done some night time photography with flash and it totally startled the birds so I stopped and never have done so since. I feel fill flash during daylight is rather benign, but much has to do with the species and the individual personality of each bird or animal and it's mental state and stress tolerance level. And no one knows all these things, so it's final call on the shoulders of the individual photographer.

    You might want to check the other sites for past discussions on this matter.

    Paul

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    I will focus on the word "harm". In the strict sense (to do physical injury, to damage) I strongly suspect that in most situations flash does not harm birds. However, it is clear that under certain lighting conditions, some species are startled by flash. I have noticed that this startle effect is caused when the ambient lighting level is low relative to the flash output. "Flash startle" does not seem to occur so often in brightly-lit situations. If you studied the physiology of the flash-startled birds you may find a short-lived spike in heart rate and even a change in stress hormone levels in the blood. However, again I suspect that this does not cause any permanent damage in most situations. A possible exception might be with use of flash in dark situations on species that have eyes with high light-gathering power such as owls and hawks. I do not know of any research that supports this so it is wise to err on the side of caution in these situations and not use flash.

    The other aspect of using flash is the perceptions of others and the context. You may be convinced that you are not doing any harm by using a flash, say in bright sunlight. However, in public places such as parks, frequented by all sorts of people who don't understand what you are doing, it may be better to just put your flash away. Every year I visit Antarctica and environs as a staff member on board an expedition cruise ship and we advise passengers not to use flash when photographing wildlife just to be safe rather than sorry, and to send a message that we should be ultra-cautious in a place like that.

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    From what I've read on this subject the scientific evidence is that flash does not harm birds. However, in some circles flash is considered a form of harrasment and is prohibited. (i.e. Owl woods on Amherst Island).

    Other natural areas such as Point Pelee National Park prohibits audio calls, but not flash.

    Fortunately, as a natural light only shooter, it's not an issue for me. :D

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    Often those with the strongest opinions are the least able to back those opinions up with facts. I would have expressed interest in the argument and asked for references from the person claiming to have expertise in the matter. Keep in mind that a single study doesn't necessarily prove anything but provides a rationale for further analysis. Also, "using flash" has a context. That context might be fill flash in a brightly lit area, or it might be lighting at night, or somewhere in between. For a bird, the former is equivalent to flying over a parking lot where the Sun is reflecting off chrome and other surfaces. I could see flash at night be disorienting, at least temporarily.

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    Actually I think that the use of flash is one of the few issues that can be fairly evaluated from direct experience. Unlike the ethical debate over the harmful effects of baiting and use of audio calls, where it is hard to evaluate the "harm" caused, one can easily see the direct effect that flash has on the bird. Fill-Flash in daylight may sometimes startle a bird, just like a loud sound or the sudden appearance of a predator or other intruder (i.e stalking photographer). In my experience it usually doesn't. I have used high speed flash at cavity nest sites during daylight for a number of years (where flash is intense enough to overpower ambient light). The flash will often startle the bird initially but they generally quickly adapt and ignore the flash. In any situation, if the bird doesn't adapt, then stop the use of flash.
    Flash at night is the area that seems to cause the most concern, and I have no direct experience in this area, but there is a wealth of information in past books and articles on bird photography. Every source that I have read, from Eric Hosking, to Stephen Dalton, Joe McDonald, Tom Vezo, and numerous others who have used it extensively is that flash at night does not adversely affect owls. I find it hard to believe that all these well-known photographers would be untruthful. I have only read of one case where flash caused an owl to be momentarily blinded (it crashed into his blind--which was just a few feet from the nest), and that was an account by Eric Hosking in 1936, when he first started using flash at night. He used a Sashalite flash bulb that had a duration of 1/20 sec (which of course would only take an adequate photograph of a stationary owl). With high-speed short duration flash, he stated that owls would readily adapt and continue to feed young at the nest as before. So it did not appear to affect their routine behavior of flight, hunting and feeding. He likened the effect of short duration flash to a flash of lightning.
    Last edited by Ed Erkes; 05-22-2010 at 04:59 PM.

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    Lifetime Member Michael Gerald-Yamasaki's Avatar
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    Does flash harm birds? Er, perhaps it matters what kind of flash is used ;) From /www.answers.com/topic/wildlife-photography

    The year 1895 saw the publication of the first book of wildlife photographs, entitled British Birds' Nests, by the Keartons. Just two years later, their book With Nature and a Camera included pictures of birds in flight, one of which was a barn owl taken with magnesium flashlight. Some of the techniques used by pioneering wildlife photographers would raise more than an eyebrow today. Sometimes so much magnesium powder was ignited for a single picture that it set fire to the surrounding vegetation. The explosion frightened the animals so much that, not surprisingly, they failed to return after the first frame was exposed.


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    Just spent a week in Madera Canyon photographing hummingbirds at the Santa Rita Lodge.
    There are many feeders at the lodge (on the order of 25 in various locations). If flash was causing distress to the birds, they wouldn't return time after time to the feeder I was using. Rather they would have moved to one of the other nearby feeders and avoided the mulitple-flash setup. And there were several easily identifable individuals that returned time-after-time over the week period (one female blue chinned individual in particular was missing a primary feather got flashed regularly by the automatic setup).

    Some actually seemed to enjoy it - staying for long periods of time at the feeder while multiple flashes went off time-and-again (you have no control over where the wing position is when the flashes go off). Yes, there were a few skittish individuals that took off after one flash, but these kept coming back again and again.

    Second bit of data -- I used flash on an elf owl after dark. The individualreceived many consecutive flashes. There was no noted dialation of the eyes in the images, nor did the bird mind the flash (it had probably seen flash so many times that it was used to it. However, if it had been bothered, it would have retreated into the cavity away from the flash, or at the very least you'd have seen dialation of the pupil) .

    Based upon these two data points, I'd say that there is NO difference of the effect of flash on birds than humans. Like humans, some are more skittish about having their picture made with flash.

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    Don- I think you are probably right about the hummingbird situation you describe. Although the flashes are set to manual low power output for a very fast flash, you still have I assume 5 or so flashes going off at once. An important factor here is ambient light levels. In bright sun the birds may not react but in cloudy, dull conditions they may. The other thing I'll mention is that animals have great capacity to habituate to the conditions at hand. Habituation can often disguise and or completely eliminate the effect.

    Re. the owl, I would imagine the owl's pupils to be fully dilated (i.e., wide-open) in dark conditions and may temporarily constrict when flashed. Owl's eyes have incredible light-gathering power so you can imagine what a flash might do when the pupils are fully dilated.
    Last edited by John Chardine; 05-24-2010 at 10:55 AM.

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    BPN Member Bill Jobes's Avatar
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    I've often pondered this question and appreciate the dialog on the topic.
    For practical and esthetic reasons, I've mostly abandoned the use of flash.
    While flash often produces more dazzling photographic results, there can be no doubt that its use imposes an artiifically-induced change in the natural, visual environment.
    In my former life, it would be the difference between a spot news image, and a studio or outdoor modeling shot.
    They are different -- one image isn't superior to the other -- they're just not the same
    Flash may not 'harm' birds, but based on distance proximity, it surely, at least briefly, has the potential to impair their visual acuity.
    I may well use flash in the future, but it will be on a very selective basis, and with full knowledge that my actions will have some impact on my subject.
    My goal is to create an image that comes as close as possible to replicating how we see things, naturally, through our own eyes.
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    John
    Multiple series of flashes on the owl shows no difference in pupil dialation - they're nearly wide open. An initial image without flash(someone forgot to turn on the flash ;-) shows the same pupil dialation.
    And with hummingbirds, it was 8 flashes with cloudy conditions under a tree. So it wasn't bring sunlight. I don't doubt habituation, but when they first found the feeder, it had flashes running. If they'd felt pain or discomfort, they would not have returned (and they weren't habituated yet).
    best regards
    Don
    Last edited by Don Nelson; 05-24-2010 at 11:08 AM.

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    Interesting discussion and one that I follow closely; since flash is so useful for rainforest photography, I often come across tour guides or tourists who have opinions on the subject based on no fact or evidence.

    I think John's approach to focus on the definition harm is correct. From the standpoint of actually damaging vision, it would seem that this is a physiological impossibility because the light from flash(es) is simply not intense or long enough to damage tissue or even to destroy Rodopsin, which would compromise vision for a short time until the Rodopsin supply is regenerated. I have traveled with the author of the NatureScapes article quoted above, and he explained this quite clearly to me. And just two days ago, I had a similar discussion with a nature photographer and opthamologist from France who gave a very similar explanation. He added that in his opinion even flash at night on an owl would not be enough to destroy Rodopsin, so that even temporary visual impairment would be minimal to none. I'm not a medical doctor myself but this is what I have been told by two good sources.

    But I also like John's approach in pointing out that flash may cause behavioral harm depending on when and where it's used. This seems to me to be the most important point.

    By the way, I do a lot of multiple flash hummingbird photography and concur with the discussion here. When ambient light levels are low, the flash does seem to startle the birds more but even then, many birds will keep coming to the setup even when there is an open feeder just a few feet away.

    And I think most of us would agree that the "flash as crutch" argument is just plain silly. When used well, flash can enhance our photos in a number of different situations when we don't have perfect natural light.

    Cheers,
    Greg Basco

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    Actually Don, light causes a constriction of the pupil rather than dilation, and it takes about 1/10 sec for the reflex to occur so it might be tough to see in a flash image unless you took two images 1/10 sec apart.

    Anyway, that's being picky. I think birds can become accustomed to all sorts of things that human's do, including flashing lights. If they are looking directly at the camera they probably "see spots" like we do after being flashed but there would be no reason to expect any kind of retinal damage. I would agree that if they keep coming around then we can surmise the flash is not disturbing them significantly.

    I think if you look at all the money, time, travel and effort that's spent on birding and bird photography one could easily argue that birds alter our behavior more than we alter theirs!

    Joel

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    Right you are, Joel. Flash does cause constriction.
    Excatly what I was saying was "There was no noticable difference in the amount of pupil dilation."
    On alternate nights I was using either a 7D or Mark IV with 800mm lens for the owl. Both with 580EXII with external battery pack. 7D at 8FPS, MkIV at 10FPS. The latter meets your 1/10sec comment (but is recovery that quick???)
    Last edited by Don Nelson; 05-24-2010 at 02:43 PM.

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    Actually you might have to take three frames in succession. The first without flash to see pupil diameter in ambient light, the second with flash and then a third one quickly after to see the change in pupil diameter after the flash. You can see for yourself on a person by dimming the lights and using a pen light to check pupillary reflexes.....the constriction and subsequent dilatation (recovery) happen very quickly but nearly as quick as a xenon flash or typical camera shutter speed. Birds of prey, noted for their incredible visual acuity, may even have faster pupillary reflexes than humans ( I don't know for sure ). Also keep in mind that the pupil will dilate quickly if the animal is frightened or feels cornered. (fight or flight reflex = adrenalin surge).

    Owls, in order to see better at night, have a significantly different distribution of rods and cones in their retina compared to us. I believe they can enlarge their pupil much bigger in relation to the iris than we can as well.

    In any event I don't think a typical camera flash can hurt them physically in terms of retinal damage.

    Joel

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    No expert here on this matter but I think the use of flash after dark on owls and the like may be a bad idea. With that said I couldn’t imagine that flash can cause any physical damage like retinal damage. It may impair an owls ability too hunt for a few moments and that’s where the problem lays for me. Fill flash on birds outdoors is not even as much of an issue as the shutter noise best I can tell. Personally I don’t think daylight fill flash harms birds anymore then a passing lighting storm in fact the latter may in fact be more dangerous.

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    Bill...you read my thoughts on that ListServe already, so I won't restate them here. Its a shame what is going on there, IF it happens. I hope they don't ban flash there, but it can happen for sure. If they do, they should also take care of all the other disruptions that occur to the birds from the joggers, walkers, pets, kids wading in the water there, etc...

    One of the people complaining to the park officials is a nut job. This person complains to them every year about this and that and this said person really dislikes photographers. The group of photographers down there using flash must have sent this person over the edge. I am surprised the photographers were not approached by this person and lectured. That very thing happened to me on the east side of this same park by this person. Needless to say...we have had words on a few different occassions and well...we simply don't care for one another.;)

    I hope the Park Officials research the facts prior to making any decisions...but it seems, in this day and age, good ole common sense is a rarity.

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    In most parts of the world, birds are exposed to lightning - often at night, and often frequently. At least to human eyes, lightning at night is often brighter than photographic flash, and presumably the birds have evolved to ignore it.

    Richard

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    My eyes are considerably less sensitive than an owl's, and a flash pointed directly in my eyes hurts for a moment and impairs my vision for some time.

    The idea that birds might enjoy flash is very odd. As is the idea that because an animal does not retreat it does not "mind" flash. Ever heard the expression "rabbit in the headlights"?

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