Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Birding Ethics Debate: To Call or Not to Call

With all the new technology like iPhones, iPods and Zune players and all the cool applications that come with them like BirdJam and digital field guides like iBird we have all kinds of new ethical dilemmas. Scientists have long used bird-call playbacks on cassette for their studies, but now potentially every birder out there can play bird calls and songs with ease. Luring the birds in with portable speakers and an MP3 player does indeed reveal that more birds are in a given area than you might otherwise see. I never knew that so many Spotted Towhees were in the willow dominated riparian draws where I live until I played their call and they seemed to be everywhere. But is it right?

Does playing bird calls stress out or endanger the bird or their offspring still in the nest? Does it mess up their mating and migration patterns? Does it confuse or disorient them? Does anyone really have answers for these questions?

The BirdJam website has a page dedicated to the birding ethics related to using their product. I generally agree with what they have to say. The science is still out...I haven't seen a study that says attracting birds with their own sounds has negative effects. Common sense does tell me not to play the sound over and over and over and not to play it around nesting birds or other birders not in my group (unless you want to play really mean, but fun-spirited practical jokes by playing rare bird sounds).

I find that some people are overly-sensitive to these disputatious issues. Disturbance to the birds by mankind in this regard I suspect is very minimal and would not affect for long their daily habits, no more than a passing coyote or bird of prey. Feeding wild birds probably has more of an impact, positive or negative, than a few seconds of hearing another bird of their same species. I am open to anecdotal and scientific evidence to the contrary.

Now I don't play my BirdJam in the field as much as I did when I first got it. I use the Stokes bird songs on my computer while in my home when I prepare to go after a target bird to learn its calls and songs. I admit that a handful of my life birds are the direct result of BirdJam and I have a clear conscience knowing that my employment of such a device was done reasonably and responsibly.

Do the benefits of better understanding bird distribution by knowing elusive birds are there outweigh the disturbance?

I have been keeping a list of which birds react to the playbacks and how they react. I'll post or publish my findings at some future date when I have collected more data. Hopefully others out there are doing the same and we can pull our results together and come to some better conclusions about the effectiveness and bird safety of this now more prolific technology. This topic would make for a great doctoral thesis for some aspiring ornithologist out there!

How do you feel about this issue? Do you have any experience for good or bad in this arena?


  1. Without going into detail I would say that responsible use of call backs is benign in most cases. Many birders use "spishing" and/or small owl imitations to attract land birds and there is no evidence this has any negative effect and is generally considered to be acceptable. In very popular birding locations call backs might be problematic (for various reasons) but that is a fairly rare situation - especially in a state like Idaho.

  2. Maybe if ABA Rules prohibited adding a bird to a Life List if a recorded call was played (under the "captive birds don't count" rule), that would keep the use of such devices to a minimum. There are degrees of "sporting" in hunting, and the same goes for birding. If a person can successfully attract a bird with pishing there is a direct communication between birder and bird that strikes me as unique and special. Pishing communicates to the birds a transient danger (person or owl or whatever) is nearby, so birds flock to the site of the danger and scold. By this act, the danger will be mitigated and calm will soon return to the region.

    The use of audio playback during a season where territory is being claimed by birds would seem to me to be risking displacing the real bird. I've thought about getting a device but have resisted the temptation. While birding, I always feel disappointed in my ability if the bird ceases natural behaviour and consider myself to have erred if the bird flies away. Consider ducks, for example ... I consider it successful if they just continue to swim and feed, less successful if they dive or swim slowly away, and a "poor performance" on my part if they take flight.

    If the recording attracts the bird, we see it and are pleased ... but what if the recording has actually caused the bird to flee? We would never see the bird and not know. Is there any study which can alleviate my concern?

    Throwing a big rock into a bush (called a "Dickey Bird" by a professional birder I knew as a child) can cause a hidden bird to come into view, but I don't do it.

  3. Thanks Charles and Jonathan. There is indeed something "less-sporting" about playing callbacks. I have noticed that I don't feel as satisfied seeing a life bird using this method.