A common misinterpretation of the devastatingly elegant Heisenberg uncertainty principle is that that observation of an event or phenomenon changes that event or phenomenon. This rendition of the uncertainty principle is no doubt popular because it (a) dispenses with the quantum physics gibberish and (b) has the ring of truth. The mere act of observation often alters that which is observed. However, if this principle were applicable in all interactions between viewer and viewee, the implications would be troubling. Take, for example, bird-watching, an activity based entirely on the active observation of avifauna. Do bird-watchers, by watching birds, influence the behavior of the birds they are watching? At least one researcher seems to think so.

Dr. Fred Gehlbach has been studying small owl species like Flammulated and Screech-owls for many years. Now, he and his wife, Nancy are looking into the effect of ecotourism on some owls in the Chiricahua mountains of southeastern Arizona. Gehlbach, working out of the Southwestern Research Station, monitors various owl nests, observing both the attentiveness of the parent birds and the size of each brood. Comparing this data in nests that birders frequent and those that are unknown may provide insight into the extent to which owl habitat use is influenced by over-curious bird-watchers.

This line of research does sound promising, and in fact may have already borne fruit that this layperson lacks the credentials to find. Having seen a few owls in my day, I can attest that they put up with quite a lot of ardent ogling from well-meaning, but intrusive bird-watchers. Tell one birder about an owl in a tree and within a few hours, you can expect to find that tree ringed by a throng of twitchers deploying expensive optics. Yes, I’ll be there too! We can’t help it; we love owls until it hurts.

Further examples of how watching birds influences their behavior abound. However, this observation isn’t always for the worse. Backyard bird feeders, for example, dramatically improve the survival rates of dozens of songbird and hummingbird species. National wildlife refuges and Important Bird Areas provide vital habitat for all kinds of wildlife thanks to the efforts of conservation and birding groups. Our friend, the ivory-billed woodpecker will, with hope, have reason one day to thank its many fans for their interest. Ultimately, life as the object of affection for hordes of breathless birders may have its difficult moments, but given the interests of various manufacturers, developers, and extractive industries, the alternative seems far worse.

Written by Mike
Mike is a leading authority in the field of standardized test preparation, but he's also a traveler who fully expects to see every bird in the world. Besides founding 10,000 Birds in 2003, Mike has also created a number of other entertaining but now extirpated nature blog resources, particularly the Nature Blog Network and I and the Bird.