Bird nesting and photography

Every time I walk by the cholla cactus forest I check the empty nests that are visible from the sidewalk to see if a curved-billed thrasher is laying eggs. This evening I performed this ritual as usual. After looking at the two most visible nests and disappointingly found them empty my gaze “landed” in the middle of this spiny thicket and, surprisingly, met an eyeball. I looked at it more carefully and saw that a head of a great roadrunner was sticking out from an almost invisible third nest.

Will the bird freak out and abandon the nest if I take photographs and draw sketches while it sitting on eggs?


I would avoid photographing the nest. It’s generally considered bad form, as it puts additional stress on the parents. If you have to photograph it, take a quick snap and move on, don’t sit and stare and fiddle about for the perfect shot. You don’t want the birds thinking a predator has found and is staring at them. Same for watching long-term to sketch. I would sketch from memory.


this is a point of substantial controversy in the birding community, from what I can gather. i can’t give an informed answer, but i can just encourage you to be aware of the potential stress you’re causing the parents, and to try to minimize the impact. one person is generally less impact than multitudes – and isolated birds are generally more sensitive than those that roost in parks.

if you do choose to observe the nest for a sustained period, be careful to habituate the bird. they can detect eye contact and body orientation, so play coy, and take your time. focus on the sketch and not the nest. let them get used to you. don’t rush them – and if you can’t put in the time, err toward leaving them be.

also be aware that your attention will have ripple effects. i found an owl nest today – by following the 40 gigantic camera lenses pointed toward it. this was in a park, and i think everything was fine – I was delighted – but be aware that your attention to the nest attracts others’ attention to the nest.


Continuous stress will affect the female bird, she can not abandon nest, but her hormone levels would be not right and statistically it will lead to lower level of brood surviving (plus crows and other birds will see where the nest is). So, leave drawing to your photos, just make some pics and move out of bird sight. Don’t visit the nest each day if you ever need to.


i think the others have covered the topic pretty well, but i would add that it might not be a good idea to post observations of nesting birds, in case there are others who might try to find the birds and do bad things.

if you’re interested in roadrunner videos, this person was able to get a camera right next to a nest, seemingly without spooking the birds: (this person also has tons of other similar roadrunner videos.) i guess this proves that it’s possible to observe nesting roadrunners very intimately and over a long period without causing the birds to freak out and abandon the nest, though i’m not advocating trying this yourself, especially if you’re not sure of what you’re doing.

here’s something that indicates that roadrunners will abandon nests if they are trapped: (i gather it’s very hard to trap roadrunners. so getting caught must be really stressful for them.)

and here are some notes about roadrunners in general, with a section on nesting:


The short answer is that a few photos is not likely to cause any problems, but keep it very brief, do it infrequently, do not make any disturbances (eg. don’t move things, don’t move too fast, don’t make loud noises, etc… and remember that even though you may be done with what you’re doing, the bird is not, so keep to that quietness and respect as you’re leaving too), and don’t hang around to draw (take a couple of reference photos and do the drawing elsewhere).


I agree that you should just take some quick photos and leave. I know it is a wonderful thing to find and watch a nest go through all the stages from building to when the young fledge. But, you have to be sensitive to the birds’ needs.

If you are interested, here is a link to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website: NestWatch. I am sending the link to the code of conduct page so you can get an idea about how to approach a nest on a regular basis and not have a big impact. But, there is a lot of information on this website.

You can record visits to a nest and contribute to research projects on this site. It is different than iNaturalist because it is a longer-term project. I have done this many times with raptors for almost ten years. It never gets old. Every bird has a different personality. Last winter I was lucky enough to find a great horned owl nest. This spring, I found a pair of crows building a nest. It will be a shorter nesting period for the crows compared to a bird of prey.

Best of luck with the thrasher nest.

I will add one more thing: When I watched/visited that owl nest over a couple of months time I only told one person about it. Nests are very attractive for birders and photographers. And, owl nests are BIG TARGETS. I only sent regular updates to a local naturalist. Some birders and photographers in the area are very upset that I didn’t share the nest with them last year. But, I am not bothered by that. I wanted the owls to be successful and raise more owls. About a decade ago these owls were struck by West Nile Virus and a lot died. With dwindling wild spaces we need to be more aware of how our actions affect wildlife.


Thank you very much for your great comments and links. Unfortunately I don’t have a telephoto lens to be able to take a decent shot of the nest and bird from the opposite side of the street but I can step further away from the nest without being right in front of the chicken wire fence that contains the cacti.

I know what you mean. These days you cannot look at anything (not even a pile of trash) without someone noticing it. I always try to be as discreet as possible. I saw that this bird was hanging around in the part of my neighborhood several weeks ago. One late afternoon I was walking around the block to stretch my legs and briefly stopped in front of the cholla cactus forest (all the nests were empty at that time) and when I resumed my walking a woman showed up out of the blue and told me all about the great roadrunner that she had been seeing. She thought that coyotes and owls had eaten all the local roadrunners and was happy to know that that was not the case.

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Do you mean posting those observations on popular social media or iNaturalist?

I am not on social media platforms anymore. I think they have become a serious problem for wildlife and the environment. It’s a big dilemma, though. On one had it seems to me that all the environmental organizations on this planet use them to keep the public informed and raise awareness about environmental issues, conservation etc. On the other individuals can cause a lot of damage by posting selfies in particular pretty and cute environments (one example is the picture of the California poppy super bloom or the monolith-like sculpture in a national forest.) However, sometimes other individuals post images that contribute to their own downfall. (One example is those Oregon “hunters” who killed about 200 wild animals. They were caught because they posted pictures on social media)

You can obscure nest observation or post it later than breeding season.


both. every situation is different, i guess, but generally i would tend to err on the side of not posting to prevent unnecessarily advertising locations. (it’s true that iNaturalist offers geoprivacy functionality, but i think most people would be surprised at how many ways using that functionality may still fail to protect the true locations of observations. if you’re not comfortable posting it as an unobscured observation after considering potential impact to the bird, i wouldn’t post it.) if you have observations that you think would be useful for science or conservation, you can always share that information directly with folks who need to know, outside of iNaturalist. or if you must post to iNaturalist, you could always delay posting until you know for sure the nest is empty and the nest/area is unlikely to be used again (even in future years).

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Sorry I don’t understand. Do folks usually post nest observations here?

There’s plenty of them, although a lot are of empty nests. I’ve done it for a few active nests, although perhaps I shouldn’t have. I don’t live in a place with a lot of iNatters, and none of them seem the sort to mess with nests, so I didn’t worry about it.

Yes, but if you want to be a responsible observer you should think about how your observation may affect nesting birds, as @fluffyinca said you can check how many users are around, cause I also live in a place where only like 2 people are watching birds around and I’m sure they won’t be hunting after Great Tit nest, but if it was a rarer bird I’d think about obscuring coordinates until the end of summer.

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Sorry I didn’t see your reply until now.
I won’t post anything because I bet that this cholla cactus forest will be a nesting site next year. It’s such a spine fortress! I don’t think that cats or raccoons will dare to get in there; maybe small rodents and snakes but the bird will likely eat them.
If someone on iNaturalist is doing a research on urban great roadrunner and needs information we can figure out a way to communicate privately.

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Yes, there are a lot of empty nests. I have been looking for a cactus wren’s nest and I haven’t found one yet.
Do they nest in cities?

I’m fairly sure not, but I wouldn’t know. They don’t live where I live, so I’ve never seen one.

Unfortunately I haven’t seen the bird in the nest for several weeks now. I don’t know what happened. I saw a roadrunner in the street a couple of times but who knows if it was the same bird. It puzzles me because that nesting site was perfect. Maybe the eggs did hatch, the young left the nest and I missed the whole process.

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