RSPB Glaslyn Osprey Project. Osprey viewing site at Pont Croesor, near Porthmadog, Wales

The birdwatchers' code

Following the birdwatchers' code is good practice, common sense and should enable us all to enjoy seeing birds.

About the code

Some three million adults go birdwatching every year in the UK*. The code puts the interests of birds first and respects other people, whether or not they are interested in birds. 

It applies not just when you are at a nature reserve, but whenever you are watching birds in the UK or abroad. It has been produced by the leading bird organisations, magazines and websites.

It will be most effective if we lead by example and sensitively challenge the minority of birdwatchers who behave inappropriately.

* 2.85 million adults aged over 15 in Britain go birdwatching regularly or occasionally (Target Group Index, BMRB International 2004).

RSPB Phoenix member in bird hide, RSPB Saltholme Reserve, Teeside

Five things to remember

  1. Avoid disturbing birds and their habitats – the birds’ interests should always come first.
  2. Be an ambassador for birdwatching.
  3. Know the law and the rules for visiting the countryside, and follow them.
  4. Send your sightings to the County Bird Recorder and the Birdtrack website (see link from this page).
  5. Think about the interests of wildlife and local people before passing on news of a rare bird, especially during the breeding season. 
Birdwatching from a hide, RSPB Minsmere, Suffolk

The interests of birds come first

Birds respond to people in many ways, depending on the species, location and time of year.

Disturbance can keep birds from their nests, leaving chicks hungry or enabling predators to take eggs or young. 

During cold weather or when migrants have just made a long flight, repeatedly flushing birds can mean they use up vital energy that they need for feeding. Intentional or reckless disturbance of some species at or near the nest is illegal in Britain. 

Whether your particular interest is photography, ringing, sound-recording or birdwatching, remember that the interests of the bird must always come first.

  • Avoid going too close to birds or disturbing their habitats – if a bird flies away or makes repeated alarm calls, you’re too close. And if it leaves, you won’t get a good view.
  • Stay on roads and paths where they exist and avoid disturbing habitat used by birds.
  • Think about your fieldcraft. Disturbance is not just about going too close – a flock of wading birds on the foreshore can be disturbed from a mile away if you stand on the seawall.
  • Repeatedly playing a recording of birdsong or calls to encourage a bird to respond can divert a territorial bird from other important duties, such as feeding its young. Never use playback to attract a species during its breeding season. See Birds, habitats and the law (linked from this page) in relation to Schedule 1 species in the UK. 

Be an ambassador for birdwatching

 Think about your fieldcraft and behaviour, not just so that you can enjoy your birdwatching, but so others can too.

Respond positively to questions from interested passers-by. They may not be birdwatchers yet, but a good view of a bird or a helpful answer may light a spark of interest. Your enthusiasm could start a lifetime’s interest in birds and a greater appreciation of wildlife and its conservation.

Consider using local services, such as pubs, restaurants and petrol stations, and public transport. Raising awareness of the benefits to local communities of trade from visiting birdwatchers may, ultimately, help the birds themselves.

Boy looking through telescope at The RSPB shop at Darts Farm, The Exe Estuary Centre

Respect for the countryside

Know the rules for visiting the countryside, and follow them.

Respect the wishes of local residents and landowners, and don’t enter private land without permission unless it is open for public access on foot. Follow the codes on access and the countryside for the place you’re walking in.

Irresponsible behaviour may cause a land manager to deny access to others (eg for necessary survey work). It may also disturb the bird or give birdwatching bad coverage in the media. 

Codes on access to the countryside

Legislation provides access for walkers to open country in Britain, and includes measures to protect wildlife.  Note that the rules and codes are different in each part of Britain, so plan ahead and make sure you know what you can do. 

In England and Wales, access is to land mapped as mountain, moor, heath and down, and to registered common land. However, local restrictions may be in force, so follow the Countryside Code and plan your visit. In England, the Countryside Code and maps showing areas for public access are on the Government website. In Wales, access maps are at the Tir Gofal site and the Countryside Code at National Resources Wales website.

In Scotland, access is available to open country and to field margins of enclosed land to reach open country, provided you act in accordance with the Scottish Access Code – see the Scottish Natural Heritage website.

Although there is no statutory right of access in Northern Ireland, there is lots of information, including the Country Code, at the Outdoor Recreation in Northern Ireland website.

For more information, follow the links on this page.

Keeping records

Matthew Tickner surveying birds at Bann estuary

Add to tomorrow's knowledge of birds by sending your sightings to the Birdtrack website.

Rare birds

Birdwatching at Exe Estuary, Devon

Mobile phones, telephone and pager services and the internet mean you can now share your sightings instantly.

Birds, habitats and the law

Man birdwatching on bench

Laws protecting birds and their habitats have helped to secure the conservation of many species. They are the result of hard campaigning by generations of birdwatchers. We must make sure that they are adhered to.