Sunday, February 13, 2011

Should birder's wear camouflage?

When I first got into birding with my father-in-law Lynn, we always wore camouflage articles of clothing while birding.  He was a National Guard officer and a hunter, so maybe it was in his blood.  I just thought it was part of getting closer to the birds without spooking them.  Lynn joined me in southeastern Arizona in March of 2006 for a weekend birding trip.  We wore our camos.  I noticed that all the other birders were noticing us.  They were all dressed like preppie weekend hikers with khaki shorts, fleece jackets, and expensive trail shoes, right out of the Eddie Bauer catalog.  Not to mention, they were all skinny folks, and we...we'll we're both on the cuter side of of chubby.  Ironically, in spite of wearing camos, we stood out like Willets among peeps.

With binoculars strapped to our chests and spotting scopes mounted on tripods with legs fully extended at-the-ready we appeared a force to be reckoned with.  At the Ramsey Canyon visitors center, one birder commented to us, quite condescendingly through a snigger, "You must be serious birders!"  I soon came to realize that the military or hunting association with camouflage clothing is looked down upon by a certain class of snooty judgmental birders.  In order to blend in with the birders rather than nature I started wearing my everyday clothing when birding.

As my birding addiction waxed stronger and my birding experience broadened, I began to gather anecdotal evidence that I could get closer to birds when wearing navy blue and even royal blue.  Am I insane? or can anyone else confirm my non-scientific evidence?

Now that I have added amateur photography to my birding, and currently limited to a 150mm lens, I am trying to be more stealthy in my approach to birds.  I have gone back to occasionally wearing some articles of camouflage clothing, but never the full camo fatigues that I wore when I started birding.  For Christmas, my wife got me a few yards of the new digital camouflage.  I drape it over myself like a long flowing cloak and so far I feel like I've had pretty good results.  I am my own blind. (see at the top of this post)

My recent family expedition to Farmington Bay in Utah revealed dozens of photographers in full camouflaged get-up, including camo lenses.  They were fully exposed on the dike and the birds could probably see them just fine, so I'm not sure how much the camo helped in this particular situation.  The birds seems oblivious to people dressed in everyday street cloths.

Maybe its emotionally safe to wear camo in places like Utah and Idaho, but not so much in other societies.  So, what is your experience with birding and camouflage? Is there a negative stereotype associated with camouflage clothing that birders should be aware of? Does camo help you get closer to birds?


  1. Great and enjoyable post! In our area it is humerous banter (among the photographers) that photographers always wear cammo and birders never do!

    My kids always give me cammo stuff for Christmas and birthdays and think it's hilarious when Dad goes out believing the birds can't see him anymore :)

  2. I guess I've of the mind that camo certainly can't hurt and do sometimes wear a camo jacket. But one thing I do that I believe makes a difference is to stick to earth tones in my birding clothes. Read the book "Good Birders Don't Wear White" for some great insights on this topic from many different top birders.

  3. I like the camo cloak in your photo - would be very useful as a birding hide. That said, I would be leery of people showing up in fatigues when birding. I have never actually seen anyone do it. I associate camo clothing with aggression, hunting (not that I am opposed to hunting, but not when birding!) carrying a weapon and being ready to use it, someone whose mind set I would have hard time understanding.... It may all be prejudice. However, I stick with muted earthy colors, move slowly and avoid talking. This has worked well for me.

  4. @Scott thanks for the comment. Interesting note about the photographers noticing that birders do not wear camouflage. By the way, your photography and blog is fantastic! I look forward to following it.

    @Anonymous - I happened to have won an autographed copy of "Good Birders Don't Wear White" from Bill Thompson III. Great book which I highly recommend!

    @Hilke - I think you point out a common sentiment of birders, a feeling of leeriness related to people wearing camouflage fatigues when birding and the associated connotation of aggression and hunting and weapons. Because of growing up in Idaho, I don't see camos that way, but I understand your perspective.

  5. A couple comments from Twitter on this blog post:

    "LOL LOL! that's such a funny thing to wear, wonder if THAT WORKS! Can't imagine I do that at my garden!"

    "Havent worn camo, sounds like a good idea."

  6. Very nice post. I usually do not wear camouflage as I usually go birding by walking... If I'm trying to get one specific species, close to a lake, or in a location I've been observing, then I build a hide and stay inside to avoid disturbance. I guess it depends on the type of pictures we try to have.

  7. Interesting to read these thoughts. I've wondered before if camo makes a difference. I've never tried it. My experience seems to be that it's more related to the bird I'm approaching than what I'm wearing. Some birds tolerate my presence more than others no matter what I'm wearing.

  8. ...Ohio birders don't care what you wear--Camo or khakis, no one bats an eye. I've seen both, but I've mostly only seen camo on the professional photographers. I did notice this winter that wearing a white coat and hat when photographing birds in the snow is a good thing! I got so close to birds... In the autumn, my dark blue fleece is always a charm. In the summer...anything goes! (I can't believe someone would comment on what you were wearing...that is so...unbirder-like...usually they judge you on your optics!!! ;-)

  9. @Chris, thanks for the comment. Another twitter comment was right along those lines: "Being quiet, unobtrusive, doesn't require camouflage. Just patience and awareness. Can get just as close to birds. Had birds walk/perch within feet of me just by sitting quiet against trunk of tree or tucked into hedges/bushes." That technique has worked for me.

    @BirdGalAlcatraz - That is my wonder too...does camo really make a difference? You are so right about the type of bird and if that species is skittish or not. I have noted that some species are skittish at different seasons and other times they couldn't care if I was just feet away from them.

    @Kelly - Good for Ohio birders!!! Non-judgmental is always the best policy. White in winter makes sense especially in the snowy landscapes. So the dark blue worked for you?! Funny on the comment about the optics. I have seen people wearing Swarvskis that can't tell the difference between a Pine Siskin and a female House Finch, so I threw out the price tag on optics being related. I used to also judge a birders wealth by the price tag on their optics, but it is really more about their priorities than about their economic status.

  10. I wear black and I seem to go unnoticed especially in the winter... I add a leaf print hat in the spring and summer. I am just another tree in the Forest :o) Birds have landed next to me while I was frozen taking wildflower photographs. My Camera and lenses are wrapped in black neoprene.
    Kindest Thoughts and Wishes,

  11. Another comment on Twitter: "I wear clothing that would blend in with the surroundings. I try not to wear bright colors or white. Camo would work fine, however, it is not my favorite pattern."

    @Lee Hiller - Black? Interesting! I'll have to try that. I had an Anna's hummer land on the brim of my camo hat once while hiding in the brush along the Salt River in Mesa, AZ.

  12. Emotionally safe...heh heh.

    Birders can certainly get a little crazy with the prepped out look from some birding catalog (Jeff Bourton gave a hilarious talk on this last year when we were at Godwit Days in Humboldt County).

    Anyway, i have a pair of camo pants but that's as camo as I go. Since i work with birds most of my clothes are bird-friendly colors anyway. But I've never had issues with getting close or flushing birds any more or less the brighter colors I wear...I do kind of want a little blind, the draped camo's not a bad idea!

  13. @Johnny Nutcase - glad you picked up on "emotionally safe" as I felt it was clever, if I do say so myself.
    I wish I could have heard Jeff's talk. I bet it was hilarious! Based on a lot of these comments, I wonder if flushing birds has more to do with our movements rather than the colors we wear. Yet, I am certain color is important to birds as well as color pattern. Sibley talks a lot about false-face patterns on the backs of heads. Since reading about this, I try to shield my eyes as much as possible from the birds hoping that my eyes will not cause undue concern.

  14. I'd stay away from camo in the border areas. No telling if the mules, coyotes, etc. will think you're some sort of law enforcement and start shooting.

  15. @Anonymous - good point about birding near our southern border. Scary!

    Here are some more comments from We Love Birds:

    "Yes its better to wear camouflage because a few day ago I got really close to a Downy Woodpecker and wearing red may attract hummingbirds and white is the worst color to wear because if you look at a Dark-eyed Junco's tail edges they have white and when it is scared they spread there tail feathers as a warning to other birds. So if you wear white the birds think it a warning so you can't get close."

    "I have birded since 1968 and have lead bird trips, been on bird trips, have seen many birds and not once have I worn camo to observe birds but I do wear toned down colors and like point is that I do not think camo is needed for birds. I am not sure if camo gets you closer to some guess is that it can't hurt. I have pished neat birds within 3 feet; no camo."

  16. Comment from We Love Birds:

    "I've worn camo before but never really noticed an appreciable difference. I usually wear muted colors like khaki and/or black, just so I don't always look like G.I. Joe if I have any other plans for the day besides birding.

    However, if you're a pasty photographer like me, it might be a good idea to invest in some thin camo gloves that allow you to use a camera without flashing a pair of very white hands when making adjustments."

  17. I have a camo poncho that I bought as a raincoat from the surplus store in Tucson when I went to the New River Birding and Nature Festival 2 years ago as I could not find a real raincoat in AZ! It not only served to keep the rain off me, it also made a portable blind for me and my camera, it kept my camera dry in the rain, and it also served as a portable porta-potty as we were quite often out in the woods with all kinds of birders and one often had to sneak off to "relieve" themselves, which is much more challenging for woman than for men as you well know. My camo poncho allowed for a certain amount of modesty. As for letting me get closer to the birds, I don't know since I was with large groups of people most of the time and the birds were not fooled! Here in MA the birds often fly from the feeder whenever I get close to the window and I have thought of trying to wear the poncho inside the house to see if it would serve as a blind and the birds would let em get closer without spooking.

    However, I have thought of getting it out again and taking it into the woods to see if it would help me around here, but like you say, I have been concerned that otheres would see me and instead of blending in, I would stick out like a spoonbill among crows!

    Don't know why you got such a snooty response at Ramsey Canyon. I hope you got to see something good while there! If you ever come to Maine in the Northeast, bring your camos, you will blend right in! I know Larry of the Brownstone Birding Blog wears camo sometimes and tries to construct all kinds of bird blinds. He has done some posts on this subject as well.

    Interesting observation about the colors of blue. I will have to try that out myself. Will let you know what I observe.

  18. @Kathiesbirds - a camo poncho for a porta-potty? Awesome! We guys to have it lucky for doing #1 in the woods. As far as window birding...I know that my white shirts scare them away much more quickly than dark colors that absorb rather than reflect light. Ramsey Canyon was fantastic! I got my life Yellow-eyed Junco and Painted Redstarts there!

  19. Very but very interesting article and answers, specially as I live in Uruguay, and our camo colours are different... What is useful for me, is to stay still, very still, with caki colours or grey tshirs, in winter black rain jackets, and always a hat , that's made of straw (very typical from here as well as quite cheap) . I found out that imitating some of their sounds attracted different birds, very near to me, others just come because they want to. With my hubby we always say... hey what a great photo of X species, they wanted to be photographed today! I know I sound crazy, but there are not any special birding places around, you just get out, and ...have luck, or not! Patience is my best friend lately, slow movements, and bending, or sitting on the ground have proved great. I have not a single camo stuff, except for a tshirt, it's not sold around. And my birding is just alone... the best way I found, if you are 2 or more, birds go away. They are not stupid at all. They can recognize human figures at lengthy distances, yet, if you make some strange stuff with your body, they look at you as if you were some kind of strange figurine doing silly stuff. It is always working for me. And for my hubbie who holds for me in the car , its the fun show! :) Good luck, never let judgment influence your own thoughts. Birding, is kind of on the wave nowdays, but , the real stuff? You are the only one who can feel and know what you are living in that special moment when your soul blends with nature... Best wishes from Uruguay, Southamerica