posted April 7th, 2011; last edited March 9th, 2013 –– David Sibley

The Proper Use of Playback in Birding

Swainson's Warbler, an uncommon and elusive species often subject to playback efforts by birders. Gouache painting copyright David Sibley.

A Korean translation of this post is here

With the recent surge in the availability of digital audio devices, the use of playback to attract birds into view has increased exponentially. This has fueled an ongoing debate among birders about the ethical issues surrounding the use of recorded bird songs in the field.

There is no debate that playback (playing a recording of a bird’s song) is one of the most powerful tools in a birder’s struggle to see birds in the wild. Birds that might otherwise be too shy to come into the open can be lured into view by the sound of a potential rival. Whether this trickery has any significant impact on the birds is not so clear.

Fundamentally, birding disturbs birds. Everything that we do has an impact on birds. A total ban on playback (as some advocate) should equally include a total ban on pishing and mimicking bird calls. In some situations playback can be less disruptive than other methods of attracting birds, at times even less disruptive than sitting quietly and waiting for a bird to show.

Most of the debate about playback has focused on a polarizing question: Is playback ethical, or not? With no concrete evidence supporting either side it remains unresolved. In this post I assume that it will be used, and that it is just one of many birding activities that should be practiced with sensitivity. Below I focus on suggesting some best practices to allow birders to enjoy the birds while minimizing the impact of playback, on birds and on other birders.

Summary

First, it is important to point out that the use of playback is prohibited in many parks and refuges. It is also illegal to disturb any endangered or threatened species (and playback can be interpreted as disturbance). Any potential negative impacts of playback are more likely to occur in areas with a lot of birding pressure, so avoiding playback entirely in those places is a good idea. Where and how to use it in other situations is up the individual birder.

To be most effective and to minimize disturbance to the birds:

  • have a plan – choose your spot and know your quarry, don’t just play sounds
  • play snippets of sound – less than 30 seconds at a time, then a long pause before the next snippet (more silence than playback) and after five minutes or so give it a rest (but stay alert).
  • be subtle – you are trying to tease the bird into the open, not stir up a fight

To minimize disturbance to other birders:

  • No surprises – Announce your intention to play a recording, and hold the device above your shoulder while it plays (to avoid any confusion or false alarms)
  • Keep the volume low, and use only occasional snippets of sound. Do not broadcast loud or continuous sound.

How does it work?

Playback works best on territorial species during their nesting season, when the real bird thinks the recording is a rival threatening to encroach on either its territory or its mate. The territorial male will then (ideally) come out to confront the intruder by patrolling the edge of its territory and singing, or it may stay silent and close to its mate to guard against an adulterer. For her part, sometimes the female will approach the recording to assess the “new guy” and may even solicit some attention. Playback will arouse the curiosity of any species at any time of year, but the response is most dramatic from a territorial bird in breeding season, and weakest from non-territorial birds such as migrants.

The debate

Arguments in favor of playback:

These are speculative and/or subjective. We are bird-watchers, and watching birds almost always involves some form of disturbance. Birding disturbs birds, and there are times when playback might offer a less disruptive way of seeing a bird:

  • Playback reduces the need to physically enter the bird’s habitat, and therefore (presumably) reduces damage to the habitat and disturbance to the birds. For example, playing a recording from a roadside so that twenty people can see a bird might be better for the bird than having those twenty people walking or sitting for a long period in that habitat.
  • Playback targets a single species, without disturbing other species, which is presumably better than physically walking through a bird’s territory, or using broad-spectrum attractants like pishing, which affect all species.
  • It’s possible that in some circumstances playback may increase the social standing of a male bird among its peers (see Research below)
  • Playback allows people to enjoy birds more fully (in this way it is analogous to bird feeding). It attracts birds into view that would otherwise be difficult to see well.

Arguments against playback

Most of these arguments are speculative, only the first one listed is documented by research on one species, and the last three are aesthetic impacts on other birders:

  • Aggressive playback (with the real bird coming away as the “loser”) in at least one species can cause a male bird to lose status with rivals and its mate, leading the female to seek extra-pair copulations (see Research below)
  • Playback causes unnatural stress on the bird – the territorial male wastes energy chasing a phantom intruder
  • Playback lures birds into the open, exposing them to predators
  • Playback distracts birds from other more useful activities, such as foraging.
  • Birders dislike hearing an electronic recording, as it detracts from the “natural” experience of birding
  • Birders experience increased stress from confusion and false alarms when the song of a sought-after species turns out to be a recording.
  • Playback is “cheating”, and will create lazy birders who fail to develop good field skills.

Research

No research has demonstrated a negative impact of playback on birds at the population level. One study has found an impact on the status of individual males (see next paragraph). That doesn’t mean the practice is benign, it just means that no negative effects have ever been documented. Effects that have been documented include raised testosterone levels in males, and increased maternal behavior (nest-building, etc) in females exposed to playback. These observed effects could have either negative or positive outcomes.

When song is played in a bird’s territory, that bird’s response to the “intruder” is watched attentively by neighboring males and by females. In one study (Mennill et al 2002) high-ranking male Black-capped Chickadees exposed to aggressive playback lost status as their mates and neighbors apparently perceived them as losers, unable to drive away the phantom intruder. This led to a loss of fitness as their mate went to other males to seek extra-pair copulations. That study found no change in the status of low-ranking males, and no reduction in the overall fledging rate of the nests in the area, just a change in the parentage of some offspring. To speculate, this study suggests another possibility, that males exposed to infrequent playback could potentially gain status when they “win” the confrontation and drive away the phantom intruder.

It is important to stress that this is a single study, of a single species, and the results (if typical) may not be applicable to other species. Researchers generally agree that the effects of playback are poorly-known, but are probably (paradoxically) both far-reaching and small.

In contrast, research on Black-capped Vireos found that portable stereo systems broadcasting vireo songs at maximum volume for over six hours a day throughout the breeding season actually attracted vireos to previously unoccupied suitable habitat in Texas. The vireos apparently treated the recordings “as if they were birds with very small territories” (Ward and Sclossberg, 2004). Early in the season, males countersang with the recordings, but as the breeding season progressed they responded less and less, just as other species are known to habituate to the songs of established neighbors. These nesting pairs, subjected to loud playback for hours each day, established and retained their territories and had very high fledging success from their nests (Schlossberg and Ward, 2004).

What Not to do

Under no circumstances should you play a recording continuously or at very high volume. The epitome of bad playback etiquette is the birder who walks around with a device continuously and loudly broadcasting sound, or the photographer who sets up a device on continuous playback and waits for the bird to fly in. This is ineffective, unnecessary, and is the kind of playback most likely to be harmful to birds and disturbing to other birders.

A note on volume: I have found that the built-in speaker on the iPhone 3G is adequate for every playback situation I have tried, even though it is not as loud as an actual bird. If you are using a device with a built-in speaker, there is probably no need for an added, powered speaker. Whatever device you are using, your starting volume should be lower than the sound you imagine the bird would produce.

Respect for the birds

To be really effective, playback requires just as much care and “field-craft” as any other birding technique. You need to be aware of, and sensitive to, the habits and behavior of the bird you are trying to lure.

Plan carefully and understand your quarry so that you can guess where the bird is, or where it is likely to be. If you have already heard it or seen it, consider those locations when deciding where to play audio. You must be in (or very near) the bird’s territory to get a useful response.

Choose your spot and set the stage – Visualize the scenario of the bird coming into view. How will it approach the recording, and where will it sit so that you can see it? You should play the recording from a location that offers the bird a comfortable approach through its preferred habitat, and also has openings, edges, and/or prominent perches where it will come into view. Many playback efforts are unsuccessful either because the bird will not cross unsuitable habitat, or because dense vegetation allows it to approach closely while remaining hidden.

Begin by playing the recording quietly for just a few seconds – for example just two or three songs, then stop, watch, and listen.

Use short snippets – If there is any response, try very short snippets of song after that, even stopping the recording after half of a normal song, to try to tease the bird into the open without posing a serious challenge to its self-esteem.

Watch for a response – If there is no obvious response after 30-60 seconds, play another 15-30 seconds of sound. Remember that the bird may respond by approaching silently, or by guarding its mate, so a lack of song is not necessarily a lack of response, and you can assume that you are being watched. Watch the vegetation carefully on all sides for an approach, and also watch and listen for a response from neighboring males.

Remain calm – If you still don’t detect any response, play the recording again, watch and wait, and repeat. But don’t keep this up longer than about five minutes, and resist the urge to finish with a prolonged, loud barrage of song.

Check back later – Many birds will remain silent in the immediate aftermath of the playback, and then begin singing vigorously minutes later. Males in other territories might monitor the playback, and the challenge to their neighbor, and also be stimulated to sing minutes later. If you can wait around, or circle back to check on the area after 10 to 30 minutes, you may find that the desired response to playback is occurring then.

Respect for fellow birders

Be courteous – Before starting, ask your fellow birders if anyone objects to using playback.

Don’t surprise people – Before each burst of playback, announce to the group that you are about to start playback (just quietly saying “playback” will do), and hold the device up above your head during playback so other birders can see at a glance the source of the sound.

Be unobtrusive – Keep the volume low and play only short clips of sound – 30 seconds or less – then pause to watch and listen for a response.

In conclusion

With playback, you are effectively teasing a bird into the open, just like trying to get a fish to bite a lure. If a fish makes a pass at your lure on one cast, you wouldn’t switch to a bigger, more colorful lure and throw it right on top of the fish over and over. No… you would use the same lure, cast it carefully and gently beyond the fish, and retrieve it with as much finesse as you can muster. In the same way, if you are trying to attract a bird into the open and it shows some interest in what you are doing, your next move should be the same thing again but lighter, with more finesse, trying to pique the bird’s curiosity.

It is up to all of us to encourage our fellow birders to behave responsibly in the field. Field trip leaders who use playback should make an effort to educate their clients about the proper use of playback. If trip participants want their leader to use less or more playback, they should have a calm and reasoned discussion about it. In many cases we will need to educate new birders about the impact they have by playing recordings from the app they just downloaded to their phone. In the face of all this, it is understandable that heavily-visited parks and refuges often choose the easily-enforceable solution of a total ban on playback, and that should be respected.

As in all things related to birds, there is a lot that is unknown about their response to playback. More research on the effects of playback, including varied species with different social systems, would be very helpful. In the meantime, being courteous and respectful to the birds and to fellow birders should avoid most of the potential conflicts and allow us to continue to enjoy birding with minimal impact on the birds.

References

Mennill, D. J., L. M. Ratcliffe, and P. T. Boag. 2002. Female Eavesdropping on Male Song Contests in Songbirds. Science: 296: 873  http://web2.uwindsor.ca/courses/biology/dmennill/pubs/2002Science873.pdf

Schlossberg, S. R. and M. P. Ward. 2004. Using Conspecific Attraction to Conserve Endangered Birds. Endangered Species Update 21:132-138. http://www.umich.edu/~esupdate/wholeissueoctdec2004/schlossberg.pdf

Sen, S. K. Bird Call Playback, Ethics and Science. Web page accessed 7 Apr 2011. http://www.kolkatabirds.com/callplayback.htm

Ward, M. P. and S. Schlossberg. 2004. Conspecific Attraction and the Conservation of Territorial Songbirds. Cons. Biol. 18: 519-525. pdf here http://www.biosci.missouri.edu/avianecology/courses/avianecology/readings/Ward_MP_2004.pdf

69 comments to The Proper Use of Playback in Birding

  • This is one of the most even-handed, non-inflammatory posts about playback that I’ve seen. I hope all will heed the advice, starting with a close look at one’s own use of playback. I certainly will take some time and reflect about my own usage. The trips I lead this weekend at Galveston’s Featherfest may be quite different as a result.

  • Excellent posting. I thought I might add to your list of arguments against using playback is that the bird might be more likely to be a victim of parasitism (ie Cowbird Parasitism), which has been a strong deterrent for my use of playbacks.

  • Wonderful balanced article, looking at both sides of the coin and egging for responsible behavior from birders

  • Yes, a very good, well-balanced piece. The line “Birders dislike hearing an electronic recording, as it detracts from the “natural” experience of birding” was moot. Once when I was playing a call to attract Black Woodpecker, a lady in my group complained saying it would disturb the bird, so I stopped. Most of the group really wanted to see the bird, so later I called the bird myself, I vocally imitated the call. At dinner the same lady “praised” me, saying how much better it was when I called th bird. I tried to discuss the issue of what the difference was: between me playing a call or me doing the call. Why was it not disturbance when I whistled up the bird? No success.

  • Peter Kaestner

    A excellent and thoughtful piece. Each situation is different, but it is important to always be aware of your relationship with the birds and their environment.

    One obvious issue that is not discussed above if when to stop. It should go without saying that you stop playback when you see a bird, but that is not always the case. Here are two examples:

    Local guides, who may believe that energetic broadcasting reflects their effort and therefore related to the size of the gratuity that they’ll receive at the end of the day, are also prone to abuse playback. Recently in Colombia, twice I had to tell guides to stop playback after I had seen the bird adequately. Some years ago in Michigan’s UP, a Spruce Grouse guide continued playback even after the bird had sauntered across the road in plain view to everyonme’s delight. She only stopped after I asked her to.

    Secondly, with the proliferation of digital cameras, many people are using playback to get great photos. This can amplify the problem, because a perfectly acceptable view of a bird through binocs may not be close enough for a picture. On my recent trip to Colombia, I purosefully stopped playback after I got a distant view of the new Santa Marta Screech Owl, and did not continue playback to try to get a photo. The reason was that the birds in the area had already been disturbed by taping and I did not want to compound the problem.

  • Thanks for this great views and advises. I personally not in favour to use the tape of recorded sound to see the birds rather, wait and see to hear and se them undisturbed.
    Vimal

  • Cathy Carroll

    Forget the playback or other digital schemes. Good grief. Open your ears and listen. Learn bird song. If you have hearing deficits, playback is not going to matter anyway. Forget about it. What a sell out? And, at what cost?

  • John Gerwin

    Ted Parker once told me about a “predator” experience he caused on one of his trips, with a group of folks (I don’t remember where but I think Peru). He taped in the resident Lanio (shrike-tanager), as they are flock “leaders”. Indeed the bird responded vigorously, with flock members following, allowing some great views for his clients. And, apparently, a Micrastur, which flew in an grabbed the Lanio in front of everyone, much to Ted’s dismay. Obviously, this can happen at any time, but as Ted related, it was clear the Lanio was focused on his playbacks, and thus in this case, a case of cause and detrimental effect.

    I do not understand the comment of Ms. Carroll about hearing deficits – I have such, and it’s rather pronounced now, and playback absolutely matters to me. I don’t do it much but when I do, it’s my only hope.

  • Liz Deluna Gordon

    It is amazing to see both sides of this issue.

    I have seen bad playback and I have seen extremely talented playback used well to show a large group of birders a bird.

    When done correctly it is a magical thing. When done badly it just plain doesn’t work and is quite unpleasant.

    Bird guides I know who use playback only do it to help groups see a bird. I have never seen any one of them do it for their sole pleasure while out birding.

    People protect what they know. If playback helps a beginner become a more passionate committed birder who then goes on to help raise money to buy habitat or work to protect birds. That possibly could counter any momentary effect the birds might suffer from a playback moment.

    This is one of those emotionally stirring topics for some. The way you handled it with finesse and thoughtfulness is very much appreciated and needed.

    Excellent job, David.

  • Thanks, David, for being willing to tackle a subject that we as a community have too often resisted discussing openly, as it often tends to generate reactions that are polarizing and unhelpful. As usual, your arguments are clear, concise, persuasive, and authoritative, yet made with a winning openness that allows your readers to comfortably form their own conclusions. Bravo.

    I think it’s vital that the birding community engage in discussion on issues regarding our impacts, both positive and negative, potential and actual. If we’re going to be the potent force for education and conservation that I believe we can and should be, we’ve got to hash a lot of things out. Hunters and anglers have had a very long time to arrive at a self-concept of their activities that allows them to very directly impact wildlife (far, far more, on a per capita basis than birders ever do) yet confidently claim they do more good than harm. Birding, in the modern sense, is quite new and evolving rapidly. You’ve done a great job of framing an important discussion here.

    I would add to your framework above that I believe there’s a calculus involving the rarity and/or sensitivity of a species and the number of people who might benefit from the impacts of seeing/hearing it (this actually applies to situations where playback is not employed, too, but seems especially relevant where it is).

    I would contend that a solo birder wanting to add a rare species to a very ephemeral list (day, month, etc) in a heavily birded area should indeed refrain from using playback to do so. But in a situation where a moderate to large group of people stand to have a positive experience with a more common species, I think the balance tips strongly in favor of the sort of playback use you describe. (A caveat: beginners witnessing it should always be informed by group leaders, in a friendly but clear manner, that playback isn’t appropriate always and everywhere).

    A case in point: the White Clay Creek valley of northern Delaware is a heavily birded site. It hosts small populations of a number of gorgeous, highly-sought species (among these are Hooded Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, and especially, Cerulean Warbler). The local birding community has reached a sort of gentleperson’s agreement that playing calls and songs to these locally rare species is a bad idea, and I certainly agree with and respect that consensus. But when leading trips (as a volunteer, if that matters) for the local state park friends group in celebration of International Migratory Bird Day or similar events, I do employ playback to allow people satisfying views of more common, but entirely wonderful species such as Scarlet Tanager, Northern Parula, Pileated Woodpecker, and so on.

    Yes, it’s true that I may be impacting the individual birds involved in a small but real way. But hearing the gasps of amazement of people young and old when a distant gray dot in the canopy is suddenly brought into view close enough that they can drink in its incandescent beauty and experience in a very direct way just how alive and amazing birds are, well, I believe that the risk is a worthwhile one. I believe that I’ve opened many eyes, and actually made a positive difference at times like these.

    But I hasten to add that more research on this subject would be immensely helpful. Are there certain times, places, or species where playback is more (or less) disruptive? If there were well-designed studies that shed light on such issues, I’m confident the vast majority of birders would quickly absorb those findings into their field behavior.

    On the other side of the binoculars, I’d love to see some of the folks who have joined me on those bird walks interviewed over a period of time. Did the experience of seeing wild birds very well, which obviously moved them at the time, stick with them? Did they go on to study and enjoy birds more? Are they more likely to support habitat protection and other bird conservation initiatives? I have strong suspicions about what both sorts of studies would reveal, but I’m the first to admit that without such, we’re all in the end guessing, even if many of our guesses are informed by decades of field experience.

    Again, David, many thanks.

    Good birding,

    Jeff

    Jeffrey A. Gordon
    President, American Birding Association
    http://www.aba.org

  • This is an important and interesting topic. I have spent a lot of time thinking about it. Some people are often overly-sensitive or puritanical as it relates 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 so than a passing coyote or bird of prey. Feeding wild birds probably has more impact on a bird’s life, positive or negative, than a few seconds of hearing another bird of their same species.

    A handful of my life birds are the direct result of calling them in – I’ll admit it. I’ll also confess that when leading bird walks, I have played calls to give my guests a closer and better look at birds they wouldn’t likely have seen otherwise. I have a clear conscience knowing that my employment of such a device was done reasonably and responsibly. Common sense does tell me not to play the sound over and over and over and not to play it around nesting birds. Momma and papa being coxed away from their eggs or hatchlings can be bad news! Just ask your favorite Brown-headed Cowbird.

    Being honest with myself, my level enjoyment of “life birds”, that wonderful sense of accomplishment, is directly proportional to the amount of effort I put in to seeing that species. When I have studied the field guides, learned the habitat, hiked through rugged terrain and up steep mountains, and then finally after much struggle I get to see that bird, the thrill is incomparable! Contrast that to that let-down, anti-climactic feeling I get
    when I have called-in a bird using a recording – almost like winning by cheating. Now pishing, but especially imitating bird calls with my own lips, hands, and vocal cords, is totally different. I find that to be much more sportsmanlike and still very thrilling when a bird responds.

    When it comes to calling-in birds with recordings, I am open to anecdotal and scientific evidence for and against it and will modify my behavior as I learn more. I have been keeping a list of which birds react to playing their calls and how they react. Are they responding with curiosity or aggression? 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 pool our results and come to some better conclusions about the effectiveness and bird safety of this now more prolific technology.

    Happy Birding!

  • Interesting how strongly people can feel about playback… Almost all birding activity, especially in groups, has some intrusive or disruptive elements.(Even just feeding backyard birds isn’t entirely benign: it congregates songbirds together where they become easy prey targets, and unless kept scrupulously clean, feeders efficiently spread disease.) In short, given all the far worse things humans pretty-routinely do to birds and habitat, playback doesn’t register very high on my radar, but then I’ve rarely seen it badly mis-used (granted, today’s digital opportunities may make it a bigger problem). Playback seems to fall in the middle of a continuum from use of say a screech owl call to pishing (ideally, I’d rather see none used; realistically, well, no comment). In any event, David’s approach certainly seems eminently sensible.

  • Respectful Birding

    Playback is never ethical.

  • David –

    Thank you for posting this. It is important to openly discuss such issues so we can clearly understand the impact of our activities on the birds we so appreciate.

    I was a little confused by the research section of your post.

    In that section’s first paragraph, you assert that “NO (emphasis mine) research has demonstrated a negative impact of playback on birds.” Yet, in the next paragraph you cite a study that found “high-ranking male Black-capped Chickadees exposed to aggressive playback lost status as their mates and neighbors apparently perceived them as losers”. This “lost status” seems like a direct, if not profound, negative effect for that specific population if the ranking, and presumably “fittest”, male is replaced by a less fit male as a chosen breeder.

    Furthermore, the subsequent paragraph then seems to nearly dismisses the implications of study when you point out that, “It is important to stress that this is a single study, of a single species, and the results (if typical) may not be applicable to other species.” While this is an isolated study and the findings may not be typical for ALL BC Chickadees or any other species, the results should stimulate further investigation and more careful consideration by the birding community instead of being viewed as merely an isolated illustration of possible harmful effect.

    I was also unclear about another apparently negative effect of playback. If birds become habituated to the playback and ultimately ignore them altogether, couldn’t that be problematic when an actual rival shows up?

    No disrespect intended in anyway – simply trying to better understand the research. Besides, a thought-provoking post such as yours will often provoke thought = )

    In the spirit of total disclosure:
    I have benefited from playback on occasion – sometimes with my finger on the trigger and others as part of an attentive group. I almost always experience the guilt of a good little boy who snatched a single tasty morsel out of the cookie jar with no one around. Will I be caught? No, but I “know” that it’s not the best thing to do =(

  • anuradha chaudhuri

    i find the article a balanced and well written one. but i feel, as it is we are intruding upon the privacy of birds and wild life. With the recent interest of more and more people in wild life and use of cameras,and people going to any length to get good photos, we are not letting them stay in peace. I agree with Robert Mortenson that it is more sportsman like to take the trouble of trying to visit the site than see the bird by playing back the call.
    Birding is more for enjoyment so why not let birds also stay in peace and lets see what we can see luckily with efforts on our part?

  • Laurie Larson

    David,
    This post is being discussed on the Birdchat mailing list; here’s the link if you are interested.
    http://listserv.arizona.edu/archives/birdchat.html

    best,
    Laurie Larson, Co-listowner, Birdchat

  • swallow-tailed kite

    When birding, I frequently “pish”. Have you discussed this in your blog? Have studies been done on its effects?

  • Thanks to everyone who commented, it’s been a thought-provoking discussion and I hope it will continue. I hope I’ll have time to address all of the points that have been brought up, but for now I’ll have to settle for a brief response to some of them.

    First, to Dave Magpiong, yes, I should have considered the Black-capped Chickadee study as demonstrating a negative impact on those birds, and I’ll revise the post to reflect that. In the big picture, though, the study did not show any reduced nesting success or abandonment of territories, just a loss of paternity for the affected (formerly high-ranking) males. So it had an impact on the status and reproduction of individual birds, but paternity was simply transferred to other males. It’s a sort of genetic engineering impact (which is bad), but there was no nest failure or other numerical effect on the population. I qualified those results because it was one study, in one season, on a relatively small number of nests of one species. Most birds have a social structure different from Black-capped Chickadees, so they would be expected to respond to playback differently, but this is all unknown.

    To John Gerwin, Predation is a concern. I take responsibility for luring one bird to its death – a Yellow-rumped Warbler grabbed by a Merlin when it perched on top of a bush in response to my pishing. But I think the point (expressed by Cyberthrush) is that everything we do when we’re birding has an impact, birds react to our mere presence, and judicious use of playback is probably no better or worse than pishing, or whistling owl calls, or walking through an area flushing birds, all of which disturb birds and can expose them to predators.

    To Jason Rogers (on BirdChat) I appreciate your point that playback is inherently disrespectful to the birds, and I don’t disagree, but I wrote this post starting with the assumption that birders will be using playback, and just wanted to steer it in a more respectful direction. Rather than promoting the use of playback, my intent was to encourage people to use it less. The points I list as “in favor” are not research, just speculative ideas often mentioned as the counterpoint to equally speculative arguments “against”. Personally I rarely use playback, and I think the proper use of playback is, in summary, “as little as possible”. Maybe I can change the wording a little bit to stress all of that.

    I did not know that “tapaculos responding to playback in Chile have been attacked on a number of occasions by accipiters and pygmy-owls” and tapaculos may be an especially sensitive species that should never be lured into the open. I’ve never seen a responding bird attacked in North America, so it must be quite rare with species here. Also, I’m not aware of any confirmed cases of birds abandoning a territory because of playback, so I would be very interested in hearing about any.

    Playback is a very powerful tool and is easily abused, but when used correctly and sparingly I think the evidence to date indicates that it is no worse than many of the other things we birders do in our efforts to see birds. If we consider playback universally unethical because it disrupts the natural activities of the birds, then we need to take a look at most of the other things we do when we’re birding. An open and fair discussion is badly-needed.

  • David, nice article. However, when reduced to its basics, I see nothing from playback that benefits the bird and everything that benefits the birder. If playback is the only way to see a certain species, then I am perfectly comfortable with not seeing it at all. Playback is a “powerful tool” for birders, but at best benign for the birds. I do understand the assumption that “people will be using playback,” but I see no reason to sanction it. I would rather celebrate low or no impact birding, and to develop better ways of reducing our footprint while in the wild.

    • Hi Ted, I agree that there is “nothing from playback that benefits the bird and everything that benefits the birder” but the same could be said about pishing, walking or even just sitting quietly in the forest, in fact the entire hobby of birding. If birding disturbs birds, then we should just be aware of that and try to watch birds using the least disruptive techniques we can.

      Imagine a scenario where ten birders fan out across a patch of forest, hoping to catch a glimpse of a bird that has been seen there recently. They move slowly and silently, sitting for long periods just watching. Their patience eventually pays off when the bird is seen moving through the undergrowth, and after gathering and sitting for another 45 minutes they all have satisfactory views and leave quietly. This could be viewed as a perfect example of patient and respectful low-impact bird study, or it could be viewed as a two-hour-long disruption of the bird’s routine, and if the bird was in the early stages of nesting and they sat close to the nest site for that long, the nest might be abandoned.

      If that birding goal could have been accomplished in 10 minutes by playing a recorded song a few times, would that be better or worse for the bird? I just don’t think there’s a simple answer to the playback question.

  • Pei-wen Chang

    Dear David,
    This is a great article about using playback on birding!
    I came from Taiwan and I’m working on translate your article to Chinese.
    I’m here to request your approval.

    best,
    Pei-wen Chang

  • Steve Holzman

    Thank you David, for a well-reasoned response to a common birder’s ethical dilemma. I think on the whole we (birders – representing say…..0.0000001% of the population) have an overall positive effect on birds and bird habitat. WE are not the problem. The problem is an increasingly disconnected from nature popuation. This population really doesn’t care if we continue to have Cerulean Warblers or Whooping Cranes. This population (and I didn’t make this up) would probably support the groups pushing for the acceptance of feral cats as a ‘natural’ part of the environment. If responsible playback allows for a killer view of a hooded warbler for a beginning birder using inadequate optics, and this triggers in them a lifelong committment to protect birds and bird habitat, then by all measures this is a POSITIVE effect on the birds.

  • Joel McNeal

    The problem with group leaders using playback to show a bird to a large group of people is that rarely, if ever, is that playback experience accompanied by a full synopsis of when, where, and how it *might* be appropriate to use playback (perhaps a verbal link to this blog?). A beginner’s take-home message is that this is a great way to get killer looks at birds, usually without qualifiers. I don’t think there are too many cases where the use of playback to see a bird was the tipping point for someone later devoting their life to conservation, and it seems to me that introducing someone to birding by harassing the bird is completely the opposite way to accomplish that end goal. Good looks can be had at practically all species with minimal disturbance, Swainson’s Warblers included, with a little knowledge and persistence. Most beginners would be more thrilled with seeing a Baltimore Oriole than a Swainson’s Warbler anyway. The folks pushing playback most aggressively are listers and photographers anyway, not people trying to get new birders hooked.

    I agree with David that “as little as possible” is the goal to shoot for, and introducing folks to birding through playback isn’t the way to achieve that goal. It’s absolutely true that the total number of individual birds being affected by this is very minimal. It’s also true that we don’t know how it affects most species or individuals. In the absence of that knowledge, it doesn’t seem like the message we should be sending to beginning birders is that it is totally harmless to the target. We don’t know that with any certainty. Mostly, I hope we avoid raising a generation of lazy birders.

    Also, is it just me, or shouldn’t any lister who uses playback get an asterisk next to their numbers like a steroids-tainted home run record?

  • Andrew Spencer

    Excellent post! I’ve greatly enjoyed reading all the comments as well, and thought I’d ask a couple of questions. Let me also start with the caveat that I use playback somewhat regularly, both while working as a bird guide in the tropics, and while birding in general (which has almost entirely been in the tropics recently as well).

    A number of times, David, you’ve made the point of using playback quietly. While I don’t necessarily disagree with this, I’ve often been curious about the true affect of playback volume. Are there any studies to show that birds played back to loudly react more aggressively or are impacted more adversely? In fact, from what I’ve observed, most birds responding to playback in an agitated manner do so with quieter songs than normal. So could one perhaps posit that quiet songs confer a degree of agitation of the singer, and perhaps the phantom bird being played back? Let me stress that I am *NOT* advocating the use of loud playback, I’m just curious.

    A quick point about tapaculos in Chile. Is this a published result? I’ve called in hundreds of tapaculos in South America, from Venezeula to Chile, and have NEVER observed any predation of these birds. In fact, most often tapaculos remain in the open for such a short time after playback that it seems extremely unlikely they would be predated; I would have picked almost any other group of birds to be a target of this negative side affect of playback over Tapaculos.

    Are there any studies showing the affects of birds getting worn out by playback over time? I’ve observed this in some species, but have also seen how some birds (like Tanager Finches in the upper Tandayapa Valley, two territories of which have been played back to almost every day for years) still respond strongly to playback. Again just curious what has been studied; I definitely agree that frequently visited populations should be subjected to less if any playback.

    • Thanks for this info Andrew! It’s good to know that you haven’t witnessed any problem with Tapaculos. As far as I know there isn;t any research on the long-term effects of playback. Your report that you know of individual birds that have been responding to frequent playback for a long time is about all we have. Those territories would make a great study site – to look at the behavior and nesting success of those birds compared to conspecifics in a less disturbed location.

  • C. Swift

    Perhaps pertinent to this discussion there has been a lot of interesting research at the University of Washington by Mike Beecher’s lab (http://faculty.washington.edu/beecher/) showing how territorial Song Sparrows use song to set up and maintain their territories and interact with their neighbors. Just one example is this paper on how individuals appear to match their songs to their neighbors – http://faculty.washington.edu/beecher/BCBHN-ab00.pdf. The take home message of some of this research is that not all song is considered a threat especially if its outside the individual’s territory. It seems a possible way to maintain stable territories and avoid competition. So it is possible that different types of playback will elicit different types of responses.

    • Thanks for the link. I think one of the keys in that situation is that the researchers were playing recordings of songs that were shared by individuals in neighboring territories. Birds recognize their neighbors by song and react less strongly to those songs than they do to an unknown song (which is what we usually play to them). Your point though – that the language of song is complex and birds will react in many different ways – is well taken.

  • Respectful Birding

    If one cannot get the picture or look at the bird from being patient and waiting, better luck next time. Playback is at best cheating. At worst, deadly.

  • Derek Lovitch

    Hi David,

    Excellent and well-balanced post, and thanks for doing this. Excellent discussion as well.

    I would like to amplify one point, however. You mentioned “Playback causes unnatural stress on the bird.” I think that the (necessary) simplification of this statement could be a little misleading. While there is little direct evidence of playback-related stress directly impacting birds (as you mentioned), it is worthwhile to keep in mind that it’s not simple “stress” as in “I had a stressful day at work today.”

    Instead, stress in birds causes a change in hormones, namely an increase in corticosterone. Corticosterone impedes other bodily processes, such as digestion. A high level of corticosterone is proven – I believe; someone please correct me if I am wrong – to impact bird’s health in a negative way. The big question is whether or not stress-related playback can cause a significant enough increase in corticosterone to have serious implications. Perhaps someone who knows more about avian physiology than I do can comment. Regardless, I think this concern should at least reinforce your conclusion that we need to use playback judiciously.

    A second point, however, that I believe is missing is not an indictment of playback itself, but an indictment of how it is sometimes (over)used.
    Let me use this analogy. The advent of digital photography has so greatly increased the ease in which we document birds. However, far too often we see people – especially beginning birders – take the photo first and ask questions later. Some of us have wondered if the ease of photography is one of the reasons for lost art of field sketches and note taking. The value of notes and sketches – as you so eloquently explained in your Birding Basics book – are great in terms of helping people truly learn about birds.

    Therefore, I have begun to wonder if the “easiness” of playback – augmented by all sorts of portable devices now flooding the marketplace – is actually handicapping new birders in the long run? I agree with other comments about the use of playbacks from a group leader to bring the wonders of nature up close and personal to a group of total novices (as long as the methodology is explained). There may be a real “dirt under the engine” benefit to disrupting one bird’s life for a short moment of time in order to initiate the next conservationists.
    But more and more often I am seeing birders use playback as a lazy way to get a better look at a bird – why do the work when we can just hit “play” on our iPod?

    When I lead birdwalks (such as my weekly Saturday morning walks for my store) that cater to beginning and “intermediate” birders, I do not use playback at all, as I am attempting to teach people how to look at birds, and how to listen for them. Does playback make it too easy; do people learn as much? If I called in every bird, would my group improve their birding skills? I don’t know the correct answer, but I believe the hardest part of birding for beginners is not identification, but seeing the darn things. Does learning the skill of finding birds – i.e. following directions to a branch, learning tree identification (i.e. “It’s on the trunk of the Balsam Fir”), etc go further in developing people’s skills?

    I believe that playback can become a crutch too quickly for some people, so I choose not to use it when I am trying to “teach birding.” However, when leading a group tour I sure as heck use it to call up a Saltmarsh Sparrow to an edge instead of tromping sensitive habitat with a large group and possible crushing nests, or at least causing every Willet in the marsh to throw a fit, but I also never use playback for my own, personal (scientific-surveys excluded) use – just in case the impact is greater than we currently believe. But, in my attempts to help people become better birders, I am really beginning to seriously question whether the use of playback is actually counter-productive.

    Thanks again for the post, and this has been a great discussion.

  • Dennis Paulson

    David, I will join the many people who have congratulated you on a thoughtful and thorough approach to this. I guess the question is coming up everywhere, as we are setting up a discussion on birding ethics (mostly based on playback use) at the next Washington Ornithological Society annual meeting.

    One subject that has been surprisingly little mentioned is the benefit for photography and from photography in this context. I have done very little with playbacks over most of my birding life, but I have recently succumbed to the thought of finally getting good photos of passerine birds in this way. My collection of photos of many small songbirds has always lagged behind those of other groups, and I have felt the lack in my teaching (I have never been interested in downloading online photos for this).

    I teach birding classes constantly and have a huge collection of bird photos, but in the last two years I have raised the quality of my photos of so many common Pacific Northwest birds that I am dazzled by the results. More important, the people who take the classes I teach are dazzled. I have had people repeatedly praise my beautiful photos and say they take home so much more from my classes because of seeing these wonderful birds projected large and clear on a screen, many times the size of the images in their bird field guides so every anatomical detail is clear.

    Besides getting stunning portraits, you can record interesting and special behaviors, some of which are brief and rarely seen. Crests raised, kinglet heads glowing, towhees wing-flipping, and birds in full song showing their mouth linings are just some of the images I can show people now in a bird class that I doubt if I would have photographed by passive means in my lifetime. I have photographed copulation because a pair of birds was stimulated to copulate in front of me because of a playback (positive or negative effect?).

    I am sad that so many people who I assume are birders are against this (with some passion, I know). Such people should try to understand, as several have written, that we disturb birds just by birding, and we certainly disturb them by existing. I agree so much with the idea that this is surely one of the most benign ways we disturb birds, in the grand scheme of things. I’ve even had the thought while pishing that maybe that bird that was attracted had relaxed its vigilance a bit and by stimulating its predator response I was possibly even raising its fitness! Total speculation, of course.

    Finally, I do believe that birds are well adapted to disturbance that comes on all sides from Mother Nature. Territorial males are used to intruders, and one of us stopping somewhere on the roadside and using a playback represents an infinitesimal disturbance to it compared with all the other potential males of its species in the neighborhood. I am not trying to rationalize my behavior; I really do believe a single playback to a single bird does not in any way lower its fitness, any more than my having to answer the telephone while I’m writing something on the computer (which, in fact, did just happen) lowers my fitness, even though indeed it was a disturbance.

    Having said all this, I am a strong opponent to overdoing this activity in any situation that truly could be harmful to the birds. It should never be used to attract rare birds, because almost by definition more than one person would try it on the same bird. Such activities have been well stated by you and others. I am sometimes asked how I get such good photos, and I explain what I do and try to educate people about the points that you have made in your essay. It was a great discussion to start.

    • PamelaB

      This is the most self-serving rubbish I have ever seen for doing what benefits you while not owning up to the risks. I have never called in a bird by any means but have still photographed every behavior/feature you mentioned. I do so by finding one spot where I can keep hidden and photograph with minimal movement. When I do have to move it is always slowly, keeping low and never facing direct on to a bird’s location. If that means I miss a shot then I miss a shot. I camoflauge myself and my camera and never utter a sound. I have never used a recording and never will.

  • Stevan Hawkins

    John, David:

    Pishing when pushed to extremes can be just as disruptive as playbacks of a species songs or calls. In the early 1980s the San Antonio Audubon Society had a field trip to the Guadalupe Mountains National Park,in far west Texas. We took the Tejas trail up to The Bowl. When got up on top we heard a multi-species flock of birds. So, I started pishing. Several species came in. The juncos that came in the most excited. They got really excited when a rat-snake followed the commotion and reached out and made a meal of one of the juncos. Those of us on that hike learned some good lessons about unintended consquences. If this can happen as a reaction to pishing, it would be surprising if it didn’t happen from time to time when people attract birds with recorded calls.

    I hope this contributes to the discussion.

    Steve

    Stevan Hawkins
    San Antonio TX

  • Respectful Birding

    Respectful birding:
    Stay on the paths
    Do not intentionally flush birds
    Do not open nest boxes (unless you are the caretaker)
    Do not use playback
    Use caution and compassion in the field

  • mary

    It is a great topic for a post. I am not an avid Birder, yet all my life I have called to birds and enjoyed the responses. I bought used for $12 250 Bird Songs by Cornell and took camping with me. The result rather astonishing actually…
    and here is 10 minutes of what ended up being quite a weird interaction with two owls and a “something” which I can’t identify….

    I can say that night…the normal behavior of the NP and SW were differnt..as tho my interaction that morning had somehow affected their behavior that night. The SW did not sound and the NP only once or twice, almost tentatively. Since I have been in that site over 30 times in three years, it was a notable change. I felt kind of bad actually.

    On the other hand, there are anthropologists who still think Goodall’s use of bananas in camp “wrong.” And I guess Turnball thought it wrong to help the African tribe dying of strvation as he watched and took notes, his Range Rover tucked in a compound the tribesman built for him with their last strength. So, unintended consequences aside… there isn’t a clear answer either way….

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPbzs3JXn7A

    a slippery slope really.

  • Lindsey

    Such a fantastic topic to discuss! I am and have been quite mixed on the issue because there are so many different situations that it would take my own blog post just to cover all the ones I can think of. But I do find it interesting many of the other comments bring up guides using playback so the entire group can see a bird. I went on a birding trip two years ago when I was still new to birding, and the guide never uses playbacks, and rarely pishes. He’s simply a very patient person who will wait out a bird. I had heard my first great crested flycatcher, and he was excited to try to get me to get a view – I found the ten minute wait much more rewarding than if he had simply brought the flycatcher into view with sound. I think what gets lost in the emotional reactions people have to this issue is that aspect of birding – the reward factor. This is what leads me to not be too psyched about playback being used for birding (or pishing, for that matter) but not as bothered by it with research, especially considering researchers are bound by ethics anyhow.

    I’m also quite glad that you mentioned if one is going to do playback while in a group, then he or she should alert the others. I had the very unfortunate and irritating experience of a fellow birder playing back songs on his MP3 player and me at first thinking I was hearing a very early and rare spring migrant. I was absolutely displeased.

    Also notable, with MP3 players – while it’s not technically playback, there are moments where MP3s of birdsongs will be played on bird trips, usually in the parking lot, but sometimes on the trail. In this way they aren’t used to bring the birds in, although it does sometimes accidentally happen. Usually it’s to answer a question someone has about a call they heard on another trip, or to identify an uncommon species heard – I have found this aids wonderfully to learning unfamiliar species or to even confirm an uncommon bird.

  • Jurek

    Hello,

    Unofficial rules on playback already exist in several places in Europe. In Netherlands there is a high birder density and a rarity is often watched continuously from dusk to dawn. In that country, playback is never tried for a rare or scarce birds. Birders often wait for hours for a bird to appear on view by itself, like recent 2nd Northern Waterthrush on Ameland. I never found out what would happen if somebody tried playback. Perhaps somebody would call the police or, more likely, newly arriving birders would beat him because their observation was ruined.

    Otherwise, I point that what matters is CUMULATIVE DISTURBANCE, usually over several days by many birders NOT KNOWING ABOUT EACH OTHER.

    Therefore I would forbid playback in places regularily visited by birders. Especially stake-outs and birding trials and watchpoints described in bird finding guides, other nature books or magazines, known by word-of-mouth or otherwise. Also in popular local birding spots known in local bird community, and on the twitches of national and local rarities. Note, that some of these stake-outs are remote and little visited by people in general, but are still visited commonly by birders.

    I would allow playback in places rarely birded – either truly inaccessible locations in really remote places, or conversely patches with common birds which are not often visited because they are uninteresting, or private land with restricted access. I understand that the concept of people limiting themselves according to other unknown birders can be a little strange in the country of individualism and strict laws, but it works.

    I would also limit every birder to perhaps a minute of playback in presence of the bird. Of course, the bird can continue to stay for longer. Very damaging is “wearing out” a bird by photographers who want large number of pictures.

    I would also point that birder must be aware when the bird shows a sign of distress and stop immediately. If somebody claims it is vague, then he/she should consider oneself a beginner and watch easy birds without any playback.

    best regards,

  • Elliot

    Mr. Sibley,

    This debate will only get more intense as the proliferation of hand-held devices that can playback bird calls increases. As you know, there are multiple programs on multiple mobile phone OS platforms. In fact, your name is attached to one of these products on multiple mobile phone platforms.

    As you stated in your article, there is a dearth of research on the effects of playback on birds. If I may be so bold, since your product is/will contribute to an increase in the amount of playback happening during birding, I think it would be a wonderful thing if you donated a portion of your proceeds from each sale to research on this topic. Additionally, it would be great if an article such as this one be packaged with your product.

    Also, I just wanted to say that I am a big fan of your work. Keep it up!

    Elliot

  • Carolyn

    Bird call apps will be increasingly difficult to regulate as the generation who is growing up now without any ability to leave hand held electronic devices either at home or turned off enter the field.
    While I appreciate the ideas in the article, I remain against bird call apps. Are we so selfish as a race that we come before the bird? I think we need to study the weaknesses in human nature that result in the fact that it is more important to see a bird naturally than call one in so we can count it. I would not go with a group that uses one. I would not want to hear one.
    If a person wishes to imitate a bird call on rare occasions that might be understandable, but only for the purposes of being willing to learn from the birds, not to satisfy some human hunger for control.
    Either you get to see a bird or you do not.
    We must be more willing to learn from birds and less feeling we are entitled to more control.

  • Brian Kimberling

    I haven’t and won’t try it, but I suspect a cardinal would duel your iPhone to the death if you played cardinal song in cardinal territory.

  • Kakapo

    David,
    A good discussion all around, thank you. I fear we need less electronics(and disturbance)impacting our feathered friends, not more. It takes hard work and commitment to learn and memorize bird calls that you can wield in the field, but I think it’s preferable to playing recordings to coax real birdsong. Just because we can use these helps doesn’t mean we should. Our mere presence is disturbing enough. A possible way to mitigate the digital disturbance is to listen to the recordings on a headset versus playing them out loud. Part of the art and beauty of birding is its challenge and frequent inability to see what your looking for. Sighting a desired bird is thrilling, but hearing it is wondrous!

  • Niels Larsen

    One thing I once heard and an anecdotal observation of my own:

    1) I once in Puerto Rico discussed this with a well respected tour leader who felt strongly that for most species, playing a call of a female was less disturbing and more effective than playing the song of the male. Something to consider?

    2) On a trip to Chile, I was in a hotel rehearsing the sound of a Tamarugo Conebill, when I became aware that a Cinereous Conebill was attracted to the sound, so unknowingly I was actually performing a playback experiment!

    Niels

  • Gary Bloomfield

    I agree with the consensus; this is an excellent article.

    As a way of reducing the indiscriminate use of playback as birding’s popularity increases, I wonder if a new Birders’ Badge of Honor could be introduced in the form of submitting NUP Lists (Not Using Playback) in the same way some birders proudly present NIB (No Introduced Birds) Lists.

  • Dave Drake

    Excellent discussion. I would just add that birders need to be aware of falling into the “philosophy of convenience” trap. In this case, using all sorts of speculative arguments to rationalize what we are doing and convince ourselves that “a little bit of a bad thing won’t hurt”. Clearly science is needed to address what constitutes an acceptable, harmless, little bit of playback. The science hasn’t been done, so we should all try to minimize or avoid playback. Bird the old-fashioned way without all the high tech noisemakers. it might just be a lot more fun.

  • Hi Guys,
    There are experience with European Nightjar who lost territory due to excess use of play back. But that it’s for BREEDING SEASONS. If you use play back during breeding and do it like crazy the bird will do the same, crazy. and depend of species.
    After it’s the very common birding place where hundred of birder could come and play back the birds. Not a good thing at all. But
    In this discusion, I found nothing on use of play back for research. Like Owl Project through all North America, Rail lure, Skylark Project in Europe, Penduline Tits at large scale in Europe. The funny things it’s that Skylark is decreasing due to loss of habitat, Penduline tit is increase exponentially due to who knows..and both are under pression of large scale play back lure during migration and winter.
    I use play back lure in Mexico for migration study. And I get a rate of recapture higher than most of the station in North America. Lot to learn still…..

  • Elizabeth Collins

    There’s a good study about Veery vocalizations and the effect of playbacks here: http://web.me.com/chickadeewhisperer/FTB/Podcast/Entries/2011/7/7_Veery.html

    • Elizabeth, Thanks for the link. I think I’ve found the study referred to in that post (and the search led me to a couple of others). I’ll check them out and add the info to the playback discussion.

  • David Richardson

    Thank you for a very interesting article, I am totally against the playing of tapes CD’s or any such device.If a person can’t have the patience or skills to see a particular bird, he should not be called a birder, maybe a “twitcher”, where quite often the welfare of the birds comes secondary.

  • Thank you for this inspired article about a tool so useful and potentially so harmful.
    In Brazil we do not have a tradition of bird-watching and this tool is being overused a lot. I would like your permission to post a translation on my blog, with the due credits and references, to try to enlighten my fellow birders.
    Best regards.
    Daniel Esser

  • jerry pruett

    Hi,
    I am a late comer to this article and discussion. After reading many of the responses I have a question about a facet of playback I do not see covered. That is the use of mobbing tapes to attract all or many species of birds located in an immediate area for viewing. I will guess people responses to this technique will be negative, but thought it should be part of the discussion. I have used this technique myself, and have seen it used often by other birders and guides. It is very effective, but an obvious disruption.
    Personally I feel there is always a risk of abuse by others with any technique. Some people are just more enthusiastic or insensitive or both.
    One thought about Rules. Rules are for games. If you break the rules of the game you are cheating. If you play your own sandlot game, your house rules can be whatever your conscious will bear. If you want to play in the league you play by the leagues rules; Football, basketball or birding.

  • Thanks for this article and discussion. I do have a question. Has there been any research showing that calling in a bird away from its nest during breeding can expose eggs and young birds to predation? Thanks in advance.

  • Tyler Mann

    Has anyone experimented with calling in birds at the beginning of the season so they will find your nest boxes? I recently moved to the city and have many new birds here including chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, woodpeckers, etc, but I am missing my country birds like Tree Swallows and Eastern Bluebirds. My neighbor has martin houses and I just convinced her to plug the holes to keep the sparrows out. Would it hurt to play some EABL, TRES, and purple martin songs a few times a day?

  • Brian Wright

    Notice the complete lack of replies from the big Tour Companies who use this technique with so much regularity and depend on this technique for their bread and butter! No bird no client. see the Biggest Twitch and The Big Year. Surely their experience must trump the anecdotal doomsayers here? Whistled a shama deep in the rainforest last month I suspect we both enjoyed the experience and I am convinced he thought he had won, but who can tell!!!!

  • Tom Kavanaugh

    On a particularly “thin” day of birding the woods of Eastern Massachusetts 4-5 weeks ago, I decided to pull out my iPhone and play a Tufted Titmouse song in an effort to create some activity. This was the first time ever using playback in the field for me.
    I captured the attention (of a male I assume) Tufted Titmouse who proceeded to follow and loudly scold me for several hundred yards, flitting from tree to tree, coming very close to me at times. I actually felt like he was pursuing and stalking ME! I literally started apologizing to the bird (silly man).
    I had clearly upset and stressed this bird, which of course was not my intention. This one event is of little impact, however should playback become a more widespread “tool” of the birding community, then I suspect there may be some unintended and negative consequences, as many of you have so eloquently stated.
    Put me in the category of “Not in favor of Playback”.
    Good Birding

  • Thanks for the guidance.

    Suzanne

  • Joe

    I really enjoyed the post and will be more careful in the future when I call birds in. I had no idea that this practice was so controversial. Personally I don’t believe it harms birds. I strongly believe they investigate the call just as they investigate others calls countless times each day with no lasting effects. Perhaps a predator does harvist the occasional bird that leaves cover to investigate? If that’s a concern then we should ban bird feeders. I frequently have accipiters scouting my neighborhood feeders. Outdoor cats should also be banned. According to a January 30, 2013 USA Today article, an estimated 1.4 to 3.7 billion birds are killed each year in the US by cats.
    I plan to keep on calling birds in for my groups so long as it doesn’t disturb other birders. I am confident that it doesn’t harm them in the least.

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