Sunday, October 16, 2011

Birds that Respond to Playback

The concept of attracting birds with playback is a controversial issue for many birders, but the jury is still out on the potential negative impacts on birds.  I hope that this anecdotal study will add to our general understanding of it all and that we can talk more openly about this extremely common practice among birders.  Most birders don't talk about their use of playback, but will shyly sneak out their iPhone in the field and use the tool.  There is, I confess, a fear of incrimination from those perhaps more sensitive about the issue of calling in birds.  Please don't get the idea that I spend all of my birding hours harassing birds with their calls, because I don't.  I hardly ever use playback. And when I do, it is for a very short duration, and just enough to see if the bird responds or reacts.  This post and hopefully the comments will not be focused on the controversial aspects of this topic as I have discussed this before. Let me leave it at this: We should comply with the playback ethics described by birdJam and with the ABA Code of Ethics.

Every birdwatcher with a smartphone and a birding app now has the ability to quickly, easily, and affordably use playback in their birding.  I see this as a huge citizen-science resource capable of gathering anecdotal data and experience on attracting birds with playback.  Which bird species respond to playback and which birds don't?

Over the last few years I have embarked on a small effort to find how birds respond. I've tested playback in Idaho, Oregon, Utah, Arizona, Maryland, Virginia, and in North and South Carolina,  Below are my results and thoughts.  

Ducks, Geese, and Swans - I've never tried playback with ducks and geese.  I know hunters use duck calls regularly, so maybe it'd be worth a try.
California Quail -  I did get callbacks, but the quail didn't seem to approach me because of the playback.  They are so abundant where I live and are calling all of the time, so the results of playback are inconclusive.
American Bittern - I've tried playback in known bittern habitat with no results.  I have heard of successful callback from other birders.
Green Heron - Very responsive and will call back and often fly by to investigate.  If they are in the area, they respond quickly and immediately after the first couple seconds of the playback.  Extended playback is just not necessary.  I do not recall having tried for any other species in this group.
Raptors - I have played raptor calls in the field to confirm a sound I had just heard from an actual bird, but not with the intent to attract them.  When I did play the call, I had no audible or visible reaction.
Virginia Rail & Sora - My experience has shown that Virginia Rails and Sora are very responsive to playback during most seasons.  I've had Virginia Rails approach within mere feet of me in response to playing their call.  Sora will sometimes come out into the open, but mostly remain concealed just within the border of the reeds.  For both species, most often I will hear rails call back, but never actually see them.
Shorebirds - I have used playback to confirm identities of birds heard in the field, but have not used to attract the birds for closer view.
Doves - I have experimented with playback for Mourning Doves and Eurasian-Collared Doves.  I have heard them call back, but I've not seen them approach due to the playback.
Great-Horned Owl - generally responsive and will perch in nearby trees and call back
Flammulated Owl - responsive, will often call back and approach secretively, but I've only seen one. I've read biologist friends blog who while doing owl studies have heard hundreds of Flammies calling back, but never have seen a one.
Western and Eastern Screech Owl - generally very responsive and will perch in nearby trees and call back, but usually remain unseen.
Northern Saw-whet - responsive.  We could hear it approaching closer and closer but we never saw it,.
Northern Pygmy Owl - I was in an area I had seen one and could already hear two calling.  They seemed to call back, but I never saw them approach.
Other Owls - I have tried calling several other owls when I was in the right habitat, but had no other results.
Hummingbirds - I have used playback to confirm i.d.'s.  Efforts to attract hummers with playback and a feeder nearby have been unsuccessful for me.
Belted Kingfisher - I have tried to attract Belted Kingfishers.  When in an area where I see Belted Kingfishers, I have not heard or seen any other reaction than their normal skittishness and flight rattle.  Playback results have been inconclusive.
Acorn Woodpecker - Nicole Perretta has video of them responding to her fantastic imitations
White-headed Woodpecker - very responsive and do approach nearby Ponderosa pine trunks
Williamson's Sapsucker - somewhat responsive in Spring
Red-naped Sapsucker - very responsive in Spring, but not in fall
Northern Flicker - somewhat responsive, juveniles appear to be more responsive to playback
Pileated Woodpecker - somewhat responsive - only tried in fall - did not approach, just called back
Western Wood-pewee - used to confirm id only
Willow Flycatcher - used to confirm id only
Hammond's Flycatcher - used to confirm id only
Dusky Flycatcher - used at first to confirm id, but then it started circling me during playback
Say's Phoebe - responds in Spring to my imitation, but have not tried playback yet
Warbling Vireo - somewhat responsive in Spring - little or no reaction in late summer/fall
Red-eyed Vireo - somewhat responsive in Spring
Grey Jay - responsive
Stellar's Jay - somewhat responsive
Blue Jay - responsive
Western Scrub-jay - very responsive during most of the year - will sometimes approach aggressively, especially if nesting nearby.
Black-billed Magpie - very responsive - they get really curious and fly over and in nearby trees until they can identify the human
American Crow - responsive and call back, but I've not seen them approach due to playback
Common Raven - somewhat responsive, but I've not seen them approach due to playback
American Dipper - did not observe any response when played it its presence
Swallows - used playback to confirm id, but have not tried to attract them with it
Verdin - very responsive and will make a close approach
Bushtit - very responsive and do approach, but still seem to maintain their distance
Chickadees (Black-capped, Mountain, and Carolina) - very responsive - sometimes may approach very close
Juniper & Tufted Titmouse - very responsive - will approach
Brown Creeper - inconclusive
Red-breasted Nuthatch - very responsive and will make a close approach
White-breasted Nuthatch - somewhat responsive - approached a bit, but kept distance
Pygmy Nuthatch - responsive - approached a bit, but kept distance
Brown-headed Nuthatch - no response, thought I was in the right habitat, but I may not have been
Cactus Wren - very responsive, tends to circle the source of the sound
Rock Wren - very responsive, likely to make very close approaches
Canyon Wren - I've had them callback and pop to the top of the closed rock, but no approach.
Carolina Wren - very responsive little car alarms
Bewick's Wren - I have heard that they are responsive, but have never witnessed it
House Wren - somewhat responsive, may pop briefly into view to check out source of sound
Winter Wren - responsive, will approach, but seems to keep its distance
Pacific Wren - responsive, will approach, but seems to keep its distance
Marsh Wren - very responsive and will approach a bit
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher - responsive usually - I've had them approach very close and other times seem not to respond at all.
Golden-crowned Kinglet - inconclusive
Ruby-crowned Kinglet - very responsive generally during breeding and winter, but less responsive in late sunmmer/fall
Varied Thrush - I've heard that they are responsive, but have never witnessed it
Veery - I've tried a lot, in good and bad habitat with no success, but when I did hear one in Ohio, I was able to confirm the id with playback
Swainson's Thrush - somewhat responsive and occasionally will approach
Hermit Thrush - very responsive and may approach closely
Northern Mockingbird - responsive, but they respond to everything don't they?
LeConte's Thrasher - responsive, appeared on top of bush, called back, but did not approach
Grey Catbird - very responsive and tends to circle source of the sound
Cedar/Bohemian Waxwings - I have used playback in their presence, but didn't see any reaction
Orange-crowned Warbler - responsive and will approach briefly
Nashville Warbler - seems to respond a bit, but inconclusive
Virginia's Warbler - responsive - approaches by circling source of the sound
Yellow Warbler - very responsive in Spring, not as much in summer - may approach closely and bounce around in nearby trees and bushes.
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon's) - somewhat responsive and will approach briefly
Black-throated Grey Warbler - inconclusive
MacGillivray's Warbler - responsive, but may only appear briefly
Wilson's Warbler - inconclusive
Yellow-breasted Chat - very responsive - generally doesn't approach, but does pop up into sight
Western Tanager - responds curiously to the call but will take flight at first movement or sight of human
Green-tailed Towhee - inconclusive, in Spring when they were on top of the scrub-oaks singing, they'd sing back to playback, but not approach
Eastern Towhee - responsive and would approach 
Spotted Towhee - responsive and would approach, generally keeping within the thick cover
American Tree Sparrow - tried with no result, but I may have been in wrong habitat
Chipping Sparrow - sometimes responds and approaches however briefly
Brewer's Sparrow - responsive and will flit from brush to brush circling the source of the sound
Lark Sparrow - inconclusive
Sage Sparrow - I hear from others that they are responsive, but have not witnessed it
Grasshopper Sparrow - very responsive and will approach and flit from brush to brush nearby
Fox Sparrow - usually responsive, almost always calls back, but only sometimes approaches.
Song Sparrow - very responsive and do approach
White-throated Sparrow - responsive and do come closer and may pop up into sight, but near cover
White-crowned Sparrow - somewhat responsive and may pop-up near cover
Dark-eyed Junco - somewhat responsive and may pop-up near cover
Northern Cardinal - responsive, may approach to investigate
Black-headed Grosbeak - inconclusive
Indigo Bunting - inconclusive
Blue Grosbeak - responsive - will flit from tree to tree in the area near the source of the sound
Lazuli Bunting - not responsive - I've tried multiple times in their presence, but they would not draw closer
Bobolink - very responsive - will come into plain view trying to locate the source of the sound
Meadowlark - inconclusive - they always seem to be singing, but I've not seen them approach
Red-winged Blackbird - responsive and defensive of nesting grounds - may dive at your head
Bullock's Oriole - somewhat responsive - they'll call back and approach under cover, but don't usually pop-up in plain sight during playback.
House Finch - somewhat responsive, they'll often sing back and sometimes approach a bit closer
Cassin's Finch - inconclusive
Pine Siskin - very responsive and sometimes approach very close
Lesser Goldfinch - inconclusive
American Goldfinch - somewhat responsive in calling back, but not necessarily approaching

Another aspect of using playback is that a variety of species may respond to the call of another species.  For example, I've played the Red-naped Sapsucker call and had all kinds of birds come to investigate.  Usually the responding birds are the same that respond to pishing.

I would love to hear about your own experience using playback with the birds.  Please share them in the comments sections or email me.  If you have had negative birding experience using playback, please share them, even anonymously if you prefer, so that we can learn from and not repeat our mistakes.


  1. Great posting. I try to avoid playback, and I find that having a 1st-gen Ipod touch with external speakers just too bothersome in most cases. David Sibley recently wrote a great writeup on this topic: Check it out at:


  2. Re the Golden-crowned Kinglet: totally responsive to playback. How do I know this? Because I know people who set their iPod on "loop" and crank their auxiliary speaker system up to 11, then set the player on the ground and let it run for, oh, five or ten minutes while the poor birds dart frantically around our heads and the iPod owner snaps photo after photo after photo. Same kinglets, same mountain clearings, over and over, week after week, bird club group after group after group.

    Seriously, I went birding with four separate groups this spring/summer, including two or three Audubon field trips, and it happened every. single. time. And of course individual birders make additional trips on their own, and share photos via computer: "Check out how the crown changes color when the bird is upset! Pretty cool, huh?"

    I can hardly look at songbird photos on Flickr now without wondering how long the photographer must have played his birdsong app to get that particular shot.

    In my area, unfortunately, those in favor of limiting playback are the ones who fear incrimination. I do speak up once in a while, and am desperately easy-going about the whole thing, but I'm just a no-name, craptastic birder, and I have no illusions that I'm going to change anyone's behavior. The apps are crazy addictive -- I expect we've all seen birders who reach instinctively for their iPod even when the target bird is in plain sight.

    The handful of first-class birders I know either don't own/carry birdsong apps, frown on their use, or use them as they should be used [which is not loudly, and very briefly -- for seconds, not minutes -- with species that are in no way threatened, in areas where the birds are unlikely to hear a recording again].

    One thing that can't be said enough: hardly any studies have been done on the effects of playback. As far as measuring the impact of frequent playback on individual birds -- weight loss, short and longer-term effect on nestling viability, etc. -- I don't know how it could be managed without further stressing the individuals in question. This may mean looking at populations as a whole and saying, "Hey, kinglets aren't threatened -- use all the playback you want." Which may be in the same very general ballpark as shrugging, "What's wrong with hunting Sandhill Cranes? They're not threatened." I have trouble looking at birds that way, but your mileage may vary.

    One last comment: I hate the false equivalency of the suggestion that, gosh, ALL birding upsets birds, so why worry about playback? Because I spend a fair amount of time birding in the forests without an app, and never, ever do I see Golden-crowned Kinglets flying around me in hysterics, thanks very much.

    As I said, in my neck of the woods those in favor of limiting playback are the ones who fear incrimination, which is why this post is anonymous. Robert, thanks for the opportunity to vent. Oh, and I live somewhere west of the Mississippi -- let's leave it at that.

    1. You're right. It's an addictive crutch used by the ethically challenged and the mediocre hoping to see their name in lights. I particularly dislike the talk one routinely hears about using playback "with respect" or using it "judiciously", while dragging birds out onto a good perch for a photo. The minority who don't use playback or who disagree with its use should voice their opinion as often as possible

  3. Interesting post, and I have indeed use playback as you can see from my post about Crested tits on my blog. I indeed knew they were around and I use playback to get them out of the pine tree and observe on branches around! It worked and I could get pictures of them, but I agree that we have to use that with respect. Like for example,we saw that woodpecker were turning mad when we tried to call them, so we simply stopped! Everything is about respect and I never use playback over here for example.

  4. A couple years ago at Clarry Hill in Maine a migrant American Golden Plover flew over and a quick birder was able to lure it back so that it circled around us for a few minutes by playing the call on his iPod.

  5. I've been looking for this information for a while! Thanks for posting it!

  6. I've been looking for this information for a while! Thanks for posting it!

  7. The reason "[most] birders don't talk about their use of playback, but will shyly sneak out their iPhone in the field and use the tool" is because they know it's wrong. That's the usual reason people hide something they do. I recently read an excellent description of how playback should be used, however my personal observations and this website illustrate that that's not how it is used. The welfare of the birds described above was disregarded and the birds put at risk in order to provide unnecessary and trivial information. Birds are in trouble today and to see birders adding to their load is really disheartening. The esteem in which I used to hold birders has entirely evaporated.