One of the things that has vexed me about my fellow bird watchers is the inability to read signs.

Well, that’s not fair. It’s the acute ability by many bird watchers to ignore signs.

I’ve heard several excuses from, “It’s a great way for the land owner to get to know me,” to “no one is going to notice,” to “it’s a stupid rule,” or in the case of airports, “I’m doing them a service by being another set of eyes to watch for trouble.”

Let’s call it like it is: it’s a move that ruins the reputation of anyone who watches birds and could possibly be bad for the birds.

Snowy Owls are all over the place this winter. There’s been discussions on listservs and social media about where the best places are to view them. One person noted on social media that they were having a tough time finding a snowy owl. I suggested our local airport since that was a reliable spot. This person lamented that airport police frequently drove them off. I made a joke about ignoring the signs (like the one at the top of the post) and turns out the person did not take those signs seriously. As a matter of fact, when I happened to be driving through the airport on my way home from work a few days later, I found that person and a few other birders completely ignoring this sign and up near the fence. I got all Hermione on them and warned them to move away.

Many of us may have our issues with airport security theater (I know I’m not a fan) but really, are the signs warning you to stay six feet away from the airport fence really a good form of protest? And is stepping six feet closer to the fence really going to make a difference in your Snowy Owl view?

Please, birders (or bird watchers if you prefer) do not ignore these signs. It makes the airport do things like crack down on the few places birders can visit to watch for owls and close them off completely. In some cases it may even cause the airport security forces to go to drastic (and perfectly legal) action and have the Snowy Owls live trapped and removed.

If you already have your Snowy Owl on your year list and think this isn’t a big deal, the birder who snoozes and comes later loses, consider this: most Snowy Owls that come down this far south are reported to have a tough time finding food. If a Snowy Owl has found enough food at an airport and is removed, what if it’s relocated to an area with poor food offerings?

And this year the pickin’s for quality hunting grounds may be even slimmer. I overhead a conversation with a US Fish and Wildlife employee who takes care of live trapping birds in my region. One particular airport had at least three Snowy Owls perching on runways. The employee had a plan and known area to release the wayward Snowies. Someone pointed out that the release area already had at least 1 other Snowy Owl present. The employee (who has few hours and time for relocation) simply said, “Well, that spot is about to get 3 more.”

Is it really that hard to obey No Trespassing Signs? I know things used to be different 30 years ago, 20 years ago but is it really an ok thing to do as a bird watcher to wander wherever we wish because we have a “harmless” pursuit to watch a bird? Is it worth it for other birders or more importantly to the bird itself?

I suspect I know the answer. Most will say, “of course not” and the people who disagree will withhold comment.

I don’t want to be a bossy pants, but I find as I get older I have less tolerance for these sorts of shenanigans and am very willing to call people on it. It makes birders look like entitled jerks or even worse look like the vest and pith helmet wearing dorks movies have portrayed as them as for years.

When in doubt, follow Wheaton’s Law.


Written by Birdchick
Sharon Stiteler was given a Peterson Field Guide to Birds when she was seven years old and snapped. She loves birds - it’s just the way she’s wired. Since 1997, she has made it her goal to get paid to go birding. She runs the popular birding blog,, and has been in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and on NBC Nightly News as well as making regular appearances on Twin Cities’ TV and radio stations. She’s a professional speaker and story-teller and her writing can be found in several publications including WildBird Magazine, Outdoor News, and Birding Business. She wrote the books 1001 Secrets Every Birder Should Know, Disapproving Rabbits and City Birds/Country Birds. When she’s not digiscoping, tweeting or banding birds, she’s a part-time park ranger and award-winning beekeeper.