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.


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.


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.


Mennill, D. J., L. M. Ratcliffe, and P. T. Boag. 2002. Female Eavesdropping on Male Song Contests in Songbirds. Science: 296: 873

Schlossberg, S. R. and M. P. Ward. 2004. Using Conspecific Attraction to Conserve Endangered Birds. Endangered Species Update 21:132-138.

Sen, S. K. Bird Call Playback, Ethics and Science. Web page accessed 7 Apr 2011.

Ward, M. P. and S. Schlossberg. 2004. Conspecific Attraction and the Conservation of Territorial Songbirds. Cons. Biol. 18: 519-525. pdf here

126 thoughts on “The Proper Use of Playback in Birding”

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

    1. I fully concur with your additions. I have often experienced that photographers use a lot more playback to get a good shot of a bird. Something I cannot support at all. Same happens with using strong flashlights for night birding and photographing owls, frogmouths, nightjars,…A good ID look is all I need, but it seems that some photographers would rather get the bird blind or totally exhausted trying to defend its territory.

  5. 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.

  6. 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?

    1. If you don’t walk in my shoes, you don’t know what i deal with. I have a hearing deficit and tinnitus. I often hear a call, but cannot pinpoint it. Playback really helps me find and see the bird. My eyes arent’s so good either, but I love seeing, identifying and photographing birds.

  7. 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.

    1. Exactly what I thought when I read Ms. Carroll’s comment about hearing deficit. If you don’t walk in our shoes, you don’t know what we deal with. I have hearing a deficit and tinnitus. I often hear a call, but cannot pinpoint it. Playback really helps me find and see the bird. My eyes arent’s so good either. 🙂

  8. 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.

  9. 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,


    Jeffrey A. Gordon
    President, American Birding Association

    1. “Yes,it’s true that I may be impacting individual birds in a small but real way. But hearing.
      the gasps of amazement of people young and old….I believe the risk is a worthwhile one.”

      An above comment by John Gerwin described an incident in which a group leader taped the “resident Lanio”. Playing the tape brought out the Lanio,as anticipated- “allowing great views
      for his clients. and apparently, a Microstur, which FLEW IN AND GRABBED THE LANIO.
      right in front of everyone.”

      Do you believe that putting a bird at the risk of being snatched by a predator is worth “hearing the gasps of amazement of people young and old, makes
      the risk worthwhile.” ?

      Would you risk a single loved one, in exchange for “gasps of amazement “?

      I wouldn’t ,and count birds among my loved ones.

      What is it that leads humans to believe that it is up to them to risk the well being of even one bird?

      It’s particularly disappointing to learn that the President of the American Birding Society espouses this belief.

      1. Good for you, DJS. I agree entirely. It is important to think of the birds first, and to avoid any disturbance to their fragile lives. The conflict between the interests of the birds, and of “large groups of birders” and the person guiding them, is evident. The logic and belief system of birders is too often self-serving, as demonstrated in the comments here.

      2. The predator issue as regards to playback is vastly overstated by some. I’ve seen many birds taken around feeders and only one predator ever come in to a bird while I was using playback and the bird wasn’t taken.

  10. 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!

  11. 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.

  12. 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 =(

  13. 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?

  14. swallow-tailed kite

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

  15. 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.

    1. As a bird photographer who has developed my own techniques of playback primarily for small birds such as warblers and sparrows I read your post with great interest. No one really taught me along the way but rather as a young birder I eventually came to realize after a few years that I was more of a bird photographer with birding skills than a birder/lister. I was oft criticized for using playback by more experienced birders especially in the early years but I learned from the criticism and have constantly refined my techniques. Much of what you posted on how to use playback I’ve learned through my own experiences with it. One can’t get exceptional photographs without the bird in question being comfortable and confident. Playback is actually much more complicated than what can be discussed here in a few pages/paragraphs. One way to look at playback is the fireman analogy. An occasional false alarm is probably helpful but constant false alarms will detract from the fireman’s ability to perform his/her job and potentially impact his/her safety. Using this approach one that would use playback should venture where very few birders/photographers are likely to follow and use it where the species is relatively plentiful to minimize the impact on any one bird. I think it is safe to say that habitat is what is most important. Because that Is the case I find it quite hypocritical for birders to chase birds for their lists with little to no regard to their carbon footprint. That is seldom talked about in my circles. I’m not opposed to birders pursuing their hobby and passion and even chasing at times but their anti-playback rants sound hollow as they burn tank after tank of gas.

  16. 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.

    1. 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.

  17. 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.

    Pei-wen Chang

  18. 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.

  19. 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?

    1. Excellent point about setting examples, Joel. I’ll add another suggestion to the list for anyone who uses playback in front of a group to educate the group about ethics.

  20. 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.

    1. 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.

  21. Perhaps pertinent to this discussion there has been a lot of interesting research at the University of Washington by Mike Beecher’s lab ( 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 – 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.

    1. 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.

  22. 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.

    1. Realistic and Constructive Birding

      Comments like these are unhelpful and thoughtless at best. At worst, combative.

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

    1. 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.

  25. 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.


    Stevan Hawkins
    San Antonio TX

  26. 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

  27. 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 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….

    a slippery slope really.

  28. 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.

  29. 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,

  30. 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!


  31. 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.

  32. 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.

  33. 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!

  34. 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!


  35. 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.

  36. 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.

  37. 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…..

    1. 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.

  38. 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.

  39. 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

  40. 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.

  41. 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.

  42. 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?

  43. 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!!!!

  44. 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

  45. 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.

  46. Great read. I’m new to birding and never thought of any harms that it causes. Sadly we can not control anyone there for it’s difficult to tell a new birder not to do this. It’s what got me into birding. And if I never seen this site I wouldn’t know of the dangers. some of the dangers I agree with a small bird in the open is open for a hawk and I lost my pet quaker that way.
    This was a great thing to keep me mindful of it. seems more of a preference then anything…

  47. Thank you very much for the information provided, i want to ask a couple of questions about the use of playback in a captive setting. with a captive group of social birds, could playback be benificial to the breeding of a specific species? would it have any enrichment value on the group as a whole by increasing their physical behaviour be is positive or negative behaviour? thank you onc again for the useful information

    Donovan de Boer

  48. Kelly Colgan Azar

    It is unethical for recreational birders/photographers to use playback or commercial bird call apps. National Wildlife Refuges and other national and state parks consider it to be harassment and do not allow it. The folks who take a liberal view of its use, recreational birders/photographers and the organizations that serve them appear to have more than a little self interest at heart.

    The use of playback is growing. Recreational birders/photographers can learn where rarities have been sighted via eBird, then head to the area confident they will be able to steer their target around with playback. It’s been reported that in South American countries popular with recreational birders/photographers, some species have entirely ceased to respond to playback. This should be a red flag, that birds are altering breeding and territorial behavior because of the practices of recreational birders/photographers.

    This is not a matter for science to decide, it is a matter of ethics and morality. I sincerely hope the use of playback by recreational birders/photographers will receive serious consideration by leaders who have birds’ (not man’s) best interests at heart and guidelines drafted that strictly limit its use.

  49. How about using earphones and not the speaker when learning to identify? Otherwise, using the speaker is no different from using chum or bait to catch fish. Or ambushing unsuspecting wildlife from a blind. At least in birding, there are no apparent casualties; although the offended bird learns a lesson.

  50. Really great stuffs to read and know, make lots of sense in both side though I am in favor not to use the electronic call or imitate the birds and let them be there and patiently we should pursue our hobbies and study..

  51. I am just starting birding and often go alone. I think this is a useful tool for me to listen to when I hear a song but can’t recognize it. I must be naïve because I never envisioned me using it to call a bird to me. It is hard for me to remember the song till I get home and ck a bird site. I can see how this would be easily abused. I also think the apps that identify plants are also helpful in the field. Hard for me to carry all the books for reference between plants and butterflies and birds.

  52. Proponents of using taped calls seem to have a financial stake in using them, either as guides or selling aps.

  53. Very interesting article. I have been enjoying using recorded calls played on my iPhone from my screened porch since moving to a wooded hilltop three months ago. I recently posted a question regarding the possibility of this scaring away the Pileated Woodpeckers I was attempting to attract in this manner. I have had some interesting conversations with the woodpeckers, and one landed just a few feet away from me in an attempt to find the other bird. However, since then none have come very close, and I am afraid playback may not be the best way to lure these magnificent birds. I would describe the bird’s behavior after our encounter as alarmed, and he scolded me soundly as he flew from tree to tree before finally flying deeper into the woods. So, as I do not want to upset the order of things in our little slice of heaven, I have backed off, and concentrate on the birds that seem to respond in a more positive manner. Titmice, Scarlet Tanagers, Bluebirds and Wood Thrush have all shown interest, and while I cannot say for sure if the Baltimore Oriole who checked me out in June was enjoying being called by a bird he could not find, he did come back several times nonetheless. All interest from all the birds waned as summer and nesting season was upon us, but I’m hoping for those feisty Pileated Woodpeckers to come back in the Fall. I have purchased a suet feeder that is supposed to be irresistible to the large woodpeckers, and I’m going to see how that works when the temperatures drop and the birds get hungry. Which brings me to my second question, and I hope someone out there can give me an answer based on experience. The sheer numbers of birds, as well as their diversity tells me that I don’t need to set out seed feeders. They have obviously been thriving since long before we moved here. I was wondering if setting out feeders would attract birds that are not here now, and that I don’t want to encourage, namely the Starlings, and Grackles, and all the other flock birds that take over feeders. Anybody?

    1. Lucy,
      From my experience living near Stillwater OK, “trash birds” like starlings and House Sparrows tend not to be a problem at feeders if you live in a natural/rural setting. I see all the winter resident sparrows, finches, etc, at my feeders. But I seldom see House Sparrows and even fewer starlings even though both are fairly common a few miles away in the city.
      In early spring I get quite a few migrating Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds at a feeder located at the edge of my prairie meadow. But otherewise I seldom see them at my feeders even though we typically have good numbers of both blackbirds on our CBC.

  54. The thing that rubs my rhubarb about people using calling devices is how it misses the whole point of why we’re going out in the field in the first place. Birding isn’t about me or you and our obsessions, it’s about experiencing nature and birds in their natural habitat.It’s about relaxing, listening, looking, sensing and absorbing the experience with nature.sometimes what you don’t see teaches you something, too. If birds are hard to find, there’s a reason! Maybe you ought to ask yourself why. For so many electronic birders the hobby is just one more way to continue their obsession with themselves and the outdoors is just another place to continue the rat race. Where can people and birds go to escape these obnoxious fools?

  55. I have just returned from a morning of birding in a local state park where I came across a situation not covered in David’s article. After two hours on the trail, much of it birding by ear, I hear an Eastern Screech Owl at ten o’clock in the morning! At first I thought,”that’s weird”. But then it went on and on, so naturally I walked up the trail where I saw a retirement aged guy i recognize from the local chapter of Audobon, with a camera and binoculars looking up into the canopy where several Titmice, woodpeckers, and whatever else were in an up roar. The whole time his recorder is going. I stood from about sixty yards away and watched him for about two minutes, then started toward him. When he saw me approaching, he stopped the recording and sheepishly greeted me. One look said it all.
    All the talk from many so called nature lovers about conservation, trail ethics, sensitivity, prudent use, etc. has a hollow ring when you see what really goes on. Understand how those spectacular photos and high personal bird counts are actually gotten. When you’re a phony at heart it plays out in all your endeavors, and birding is no exception.

    1. I am in the camp that says that any use of recordings is not ethical. I don’t worry much about pishing since the birds can probably tell the difference and just pop up out of curiosity, not fear.

      Maybe I am anthropomorphizing too much. As to rarities I think the bird is stressed enough being out of place and harassing it with recordings of con-specifics seems kind of mean and in the winter could even be injurious to it.

      Myself, I would not even report a bird that might attract people with recorders until it is out of the area.

      What turned me against it was my one and only trip to a birding hotspot on a nice day. Several people were playing a continuous screech-owl and the uncommon birds they had come to see were going crazy apparently trying to figure out where the predator was. The people were not just interested in seeing the bird, they had to get National Geographic quality photos of it.

      Our little bird club has adopted a statement against the use of recordings to attract birds.

  56. As a guide I am probably unusual in not condoning playback. But for me, it’s got the point where it’s obviously damaging. Most of my birding and guiding is in the neotropics, where it’s becoming an issue, and the main culprits are photographers, who somehow see themselves as exempt from normal rules.

    However, on a recent trip to Panti in Malaysia (a critical refugia – one of the Malay peninsula’s last reminaing lowland dipterocarp forest amid a sea of palm-oil plantation) I was pretty horrified by the playback use. It made even what I’ve seen in S. America seem benign: on one of the observation towers at Panti some Japanese and Malay photographers had rigged a pretty big speaker to the roof, and played barbet calls on a loop at way higher decibels than any vocalising bird. They’d sit around until the bird came in so close to the point it was attacking the speaker, then they’d occasionally leap up to their tripods for a shot. Then repeat for other species. It was basically impossible to do any birding there. The whole thing was a crazy zoo.

    The argument that walking around birding in the forest could be more damaging than sitting back and calling birds to you is spurious. Birds have co-evolved with our species, and can deal with our presence – avoiding us, whatever. They’ve not co-evolved with a iPod playlist and big-ass speaker blasting songs across the canopy.

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  60. I have just returned from a trip to Sikkim and with each trip to the North East or the Western Himalayas I am faced with several uncomfortable truths
    1. The first time I birded with bird calls was at Corbett National park- I was ecstatic at being able to see all those twitchy difficult birds. As more trips went by I began to notice that many local bird guides in both the Western and Eastern Himalayas jauntily walk a path with collared owlet calls playing for several minutes with frantic yuhinas and sunbirds appearing at every tree and bush. Our group then began to insist that the local just refrain from using playback calls. Most locals were puzzled by our insistence which led us to believe that other birders never raised such objections. In the eastern Himalayas our hunger to see the golden babbler led us to relent and allow the guide to play the call for a brief time – a rusty-capped babbler appeared instead! After that we decided that we would see less but stick to the no playback rule for ourselves. I may be imagining but the frantic fluttering and calling by the birds responding to the playback seems like the playback call is really agitating the birds and makes them waste energy particularly during the breeding season which unfortunately coincides with the summer. Also how does one supervise judicious use of playbacks in remote areas? Humans will always have a convenient excuse to cover up their faults. In the Himalayas local bird guides after seeing tour operators using bird calls have decided it is the right way to show birds to their clients without any second thoughts. The increase in the number of photographers with bazooka lenses hungering for that crisp, clear picture which will attract 1000 likes on Facebook has compounded the use of playback bird calls in the ecologically fragile areas of the North East of India where bird hunting is still practiced.

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  62. Like many birders, I have mixed feelings about using recordings in the field. In remote locations I would feel comfortable using playback in moderation. In crowded parks I wouldn’t use them at all. In the middle of those two extremes is a large gray area, where I tend to err of the side of not using recordings at the risk of not seeing a bird. This post, however, is likely to have unforeseen consequences. In fact, I first became aware of this web post by a photographer who told me that ‘Sibley says its OK to use recordings’, and who thus felt they had a seal of approval to use their bird apps as they wish to lure birds in for more photos. After reading the balanced and tempered discussion, I realize that was not your intention…you carefully accent moderation, respect, and proper technique. The problem is that aggressive birders and photographers will not read the fine print, and instead, like my friend, will continue to use playback armed with the Sibley imprimatur. Thus although the intent was to reduce playback, the long-range effect will be to increase its use. Moreover, suggesting that birders can use apps for common species but not for rare or endangered species is unrealistic; the rarer the bird, the greater the temptation to use recordings.

  63. Hi I’m a kid birder and I have been using playback in birding. I did’nt know it had a big impact on birds. I defintly won’t be using playback anymore . Thanks sibley for the info I’m going birding in a national park soon and did’nt know they prohibit playback so good I found out before I went.

  64. I would also like to say I not going to use playback anymore but don’t think it’s bad for common birds never do it to endangered or threatened birds like sibley said its illegal when I used to do playback I wasn’t sure if it was good so I only played common bird calls like northern cardinal or mourning dove . Like I said it’s my first time birding in a national park this summer can’t wait . When I used playback I was using it to attract birds into my feeders thank you sibley for all your information I think this is a great debate I am now against it but think its not so bad for very common birds.

  65. I am a photographer who just started using recorded sounds of birds to attract birds. After some time reading, observing and listening to some discussion on the subject, i have concluded that a limit use of the calls and songs should not hurt. Your information has helped a lot. My first question was if hunters can use calls to lure and kill ducks, turkeys……etc., then would there be an issue with me using recorded sounds for my photography? I understand that it is not that simple.


  66. I very much enjoyed this article and the approach is refreshing in today’s society…I have a little different twist to this topic. I am a long time bird watcher/photographer and pure lover of nature. I respect all species including poisonous snakes. My problem is the loss of high frequency hearing leaves me at an extreme disadvantage in locating many bird species. I have tried hearing assistance devices with little satisfaction. I began to think many of the species were missing in my area and became concerned over this drop in activity. However, as with hearing loss this happens slowly so not a real shock at first. Low volume, limited calling has restored my enjoyment and faith in many of the populations I once enjoyed each spring in northern PA. I have attended bird clubs and presented photo slide shows on birds and this topic comes up and many times not as nice as the article I just read. I think of bird banding with mist nets during migration and nesting periods. You want to discuss stress and disruption just go watch a banding site some morning….I am not against banding and understand the knowledge gained and information which helps determine population trends. However, stress is stress! Thank you for your time and also thank you for a very enlightening article…

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  71. I am new to birding and was horrified the first time a leader played audio to try to sight a bird. It felt so wrong. I still feel this way. I am close to staying away from birding groups with Audubon due to the amount of audio used in so many of their bird walks. This article helped me understand why those who use calling devices do so. Nonetheless, I think it is wrong and the fact that so many birders do not think so, is disheartening. More and more I am discovering the competitive side of birding is often more about the “list” and bragging and not as concerned about caring for the well being of the birds.

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  73. Eliot Brenowitz

    My colleagues and I here at the University of Washington, including Dennis Paulson, commented on this topic for an article in the Seattle Times:
    I understand the reasons for wanting to use playbacks to attract birds. But no one should be under any illusion that this is good for the targeted bird. In territorial species, song is an aggressive signal and elicits an aggressive response. Prolonged or repeated aggressive interactions induce physiological stress. As discussed above, Mike Beecher and others have shown that playing the song of a stable territorial neighbor from that neighbor’s territory is a less threatening signal than a stranger’s song, when played from the neighbor’s territory. Play that song within the territory of the targeted bird and it is perceived as an intrusion by that neighbor and now evokes a stronger response. Also, the most aggressive song you can play a territorial bird is often its own song, to which neurons in its auditory system are most responsive. So, playing the neighbor’s song in the neighbor’s territory will likely induce aggression in him. If you must use song playback to attract birds, my advice is to minimize how often you play song, and keep the volume low. Once you see the bird, stop playing the song.

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  76. Randall Scheiner

    I have high-pitch hearing loss due to Tinnitis ( a genetic condition) and have simply accepted that I will rarely detect the very high-pitch species. I also believe in minimal interference, so I have never used playback yet. However, thanks to this article, I realize if I use playback minimally and carefully, I can still enjoy these species I might otherwise walk right past, with only a small disturbance to the bird.

    1. Hi Randall, The way I suggest using playback still involves a lot of hearing. You could walk to the hemlock grove where the Blackburnian Warbler is known to nest, for example, and play some songs, but you’ll need to hear the response from the bird to know if the playback is working, and what direction the bird might approach from.

      There are hearing aid solutions that might help you with high-pitched sounds. A good introduction is this pdf article from the American Birding Association:

  77. Something I find fascinating is that often the most ‘fervent-critics’ of playback are the same birders that I have frequently seen using it. Recently I saw a facebook post where a ‘professional’ birder complained that at a certain site there was no vocal-response from his ‘speciality’ species … he concluded that they were all ‘taped-out’, when I suggested that he had reached this conclusion after getting no-response from his own playback, he reacted quite defensively.

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  81. Robert DeCandido PhD

    My gut sense is that many people don’t have input from someone who is on the receiving end of personal/professional criticism for what he does (using recordings in a park where most birds are migrants). I see the world from this point of view: a business person and educator (see: as well as scientist (PhD with publications on local/NYC and international birds and related topics). I have used recorded calls regularly for 10 years+. Also, I use those calls primarily during migration time periods to bring in warblers, vireos, sparrows for large groups of people to see well. These birds do not nest in Central Park where I do much work. I do not (>95% of the time) use territorial calls to bring in these birds during migration – yet it is possible for me to entice up to 10 warbler species and others over several minutes time (again without using territorial calls/owl calls/or chickadee mobbing calls). Those birds generally stay for 20 seconds to two minutes and then disperse and go back to doing what they were doing…When they come to the calls, we see many behaviors including looking for food (and finding it), or stopping to preen. The discussions I read in regards to using recorded calls seem to be based on the idea that someone is using recorded calls on the breeding grounds, and using primarily territorial calls. I do neither >95% of the time – yet I am subject to (sometimes extreme) criticism (directly and on-line). You should see this situation from my point of view. I care about birds, the environment and educating people as much as any “ethical” birder – for the last 25 years I have been doing this in one of the most important urban parks in the world, Central Park. The personal/professional criticisms often seek credibility by referencing the ABA code of ethics.

    I frequently have groups of 20-40 people in Central Park, many of whom are there to watch birds for the first time. The experience of actually being able to see a small, colorful bird right in front of their nose is priceless. Similarly to see a bird following the call as I move about a shrub (from left to right) is intriguing…as well as seeing different behaviors that can be elicited by changing the call. People learn from this – and find it fascinating to watch. On the other hand, to have one person come over and yell at me that I am unethical, and why am I not following the ABA ethics? (“…and never use calls in a heavily birded area” – never mind that among the many ambient sounds of the park are police/fire truck/ambulance sirens to screaming kids at baseball games to barking dogs); or be mocked on-line (see the NYS Birds list on the ABA web site for one fellow who has repeatedly made such posts about me for several years); or having a moderator of a Yahoo group call me on his forum (EbirdsNYC) a bird harasser and anyone who is with me a bird harasser – and referring to us in other non-flattering terms. Yes such events have happened within the last several weeks. To my mind, I trace these negative interactions directly back to the ABA code. Do you understand why I am concerned, and want to have the ABA committee incorporate experiences of this nature into its considerations when revising the code?

    How am I, or what I am doing, “unethical” by using calls to lure in birds, if no science has shown that the use of temporary calls to bring in MIGRATORY BIRDS (FAR AWAY FROM THEIR BREEDING TERRITORY) has a negative effect? I ask because some people are using the ABA ethics code to attack me, have me banned, or even arrested here in Central Park. The ABA code does not seem to me to distinguish habitats where people go to see migratory birds versus finding breeding birds.

    Would I be more or less ethical if I purchased a duck stamp from the ABA, and then went out and used calls/decoys to bring in waterfowl and shoot them? Similarly would I be considered more/less ethical if I went on an ABA sponsored tour and had someone else (the tour leader or local guide employed by the ABA) use recorded calls or pishing (what is the difference)? Currently at least the former situation (hunting waterfowl using calls/decoys) is ok with the ABA; the latter situation seems to be OK so long as one does not add the target bird to one’s “official” life list because the means of seeing the bird is against the club’s rules.

    I’ll end with this: what the ABA disseminates has very real effects upon people in the real world. Please consider the effects upon the person on the receiving end of the criticisms – lest people with personal agendas continue to reference overly broad language in the ABA code to attack others whom they judge to be unethical. At minimum, please make it clear that non-members are not bound by the ABA code, and should not be held/judged by its standards.

    1. Hi Robert, Thanks to your query I found this comment in the spam folder (among over 29,000 others that have been automatically filtered out recently – I’m not sure why yours was caught up in that, but it was). I’m happy to hear all viewpoints here, as long as they are part of a respectful discussion of the issues and not personal. Your comments are definitely worthwhile. You make an excellent point about separating the issue of playback on migrants vs breeding birds, and I agree that each situation is different, while the “rules” and my blog post here have to focus on more general guidance and leave the decision in the moment to the individual. I have a question about your technique: you say you don’t use territorial calls/owl calls/or chickadee mobbing calls. What recordings are you using to attract birds? I don’t think it makes a big difference, but I’m curious what you are using. Finally, just to be clear, I have no connection with the ABA or the Birding code of ethics. I wrote this blog post as a personal commentary, simply hoping that it might add to the discussion.

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  84. It seems Mr. Sibley is only allowing posts that support his position or quote him in an article. That is unfortunate…Mr. Sibley is not the authority on all things birds/audio lure – there are lots of differing opinions with facts supporting alternate viewpoints. About a year ago I tried presenting, succinctly, my experience in the field with audio lures and MIGRATORY birds, but Mr. Sibley has chosen to ignore those ideas.

  85. Recordings may benefit birds in an indirect way. Helping new birders see birds occasionally through recordings, will add to their positive experience. More birders – more support for birds.
    I do believe we need to be more conscious of recording use. I think we are too litteral with playing calls. In other words we expect the bird to respond when called. In truth birds have more complicated behavior. For example, playing a very loud call may sound like a huge aggressive male and drive the bird away. Playing at the edge of a territory may drive a bird farther into his own area. Following a bird with a tape may be equivilant to chasing it away. Playing in migration or post breeding seems less effective. When they have young, it seems they are trying to keep a low profile. There is so much we do not know. Think about what is going on through the birds eyes. What’s going on in its life right now. Is it worthwhile or effective, or better to leave the bird alone.

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  87. Since there are a thousand voices already here, let me add mine.

    I actually got started in birding as a way of being viewed as less aggressive and intimidating. And having spent many hours upon rocks and logs, I wondered, as a student of psychology, how could I garner the attention and interest of the birds who were around me? Novelty works in just about every psychology study, but the question remained, what could I do that would appear novel, but non-threatening enough to get them closer… and I decided whistles that emulated enough of a call and song should suffice…

    Let me take this time to go into the ethics of this, as I believe that recordings should really only be used in a research environment. I mean, I have nothing against recordings… it’s just so easy. My personal standpoint is that it should be an art, to calling birds. If these guides were worth their salt, which many of them are, they wouldn’t need recordings. It is those who have heard the calls, practiced the calls, and heard the responses, who know how the birds feel. The idea should be to help the bird in some shape or manner in its natural environment. I will chirp at a steady rate for birds who use echolocation, which I posit they can use in locating prey in their environment. For songbirds, I enjoy adding another layer to their songs, in hopes of helping them mate. (I probably should go out and start recording some data… and maybe that is where my birding career will take me…) But my experience with bird mimicry has been very personal. It has been about appreciating their song and nature. Sometimes it’s almost like having ESP, the way I can whistle right on cue with a birds song… Sometimes it does cause a little confusion in the bird, at other times it incites them into a competition, and even other times it becomes a beautiful harmony that simply increases the birds attractiveness.

    I only just recently heard about pishing… and that’s way too nerdy/dweeby for me. I want to call the birds, not ring their door bell.

    In my studies, I have learned that bird brains are incredibly complex. So much so, that “In fact, when it comes to the largest corvids and parrots, the authors write that ‘their total numbers of neurons are comparable to those of small monkeys or much larger ungulates.'” [1] Which has given me so much respect for these armless creatures. After treating them with respect, as intelligent sentient creatures, I have developed a fond relationship with a local Murder. Not all families are interested in me, but many are aware of me. Some of the crows seem hesitant and afraid of me and my calls, while others gain interest, and even more seem to not care. Here, the only thing I am adding to their environment is a poor imitation of their caw. I do not use a scold or alarm call, but a strong signaling of my own presence, like other birds. I rarely feed them as well, as I do not want our relationship to be based on food, at least not yet, because I do not want to be associated as a process of obtaining sustenance, which I believe is how corvids view most humans, as a means to a meal. Instead, the goal is to form a mutual bond of respect with these intelligent creatures. I mean, these birds are said to be as smart as a seven year old. Have you ever interacted with a seven year old child? I am just saying, I am willing to bet there are some birds out there that are happy to see me. In fact, they will come out to greet me. And that is some real supernatural stuff right there. To say I am anthropomorphizing these creatures I feel is an insult to them. They understand more than we know, even if we have different ways of viewing the world we live in. We breathe air, we eat to live, we drink water to survive, and have sex to procreate. Thus, we do share some basic biology, and basic needs. And to ignore these similarities is to ignore what connects us to our world and environment.

    Returning to the point… using pre-recorded bird calls I feel is acceptable in an urban environment, if it is done responsibly. We share this world with our armless neighbors, and bringing that awareness into people’s consciousness is a good thing. To see it is to believe it, and what better way of seeing our influence on the environment than seeing a birds response to our presence? Look at the rock dove’s and how they have flourished. Sure, many have disease and are dirty… but that’s because they live in the environment we create. And allowing individuals to feel connected to these animals is how we can best go about their conservation. People won’t donate money to conservation groups if they don’t feel connected to nature. Besides, if we can increase conservation funds and efforts, we can create more nature preserves, where humans aren’t allowed to interact with the environment, and the birds. Still, it is much more impressive when a human doesn’t need any technology to call a bird.

    I am not against feeding birds either, the less energy these animals have to spend, the greater their success in life. They know the good garbage spots, the know the good insect spots, they know the good grub spots. Adding one more stop to their routine is not going to harm them, as long as it is healthy food.


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  91. Dear David,

    your article confirmed my scruples with using play-back for monitoring woodpeckers. As a volonteer in a programm for monitoring woodpeckers in Germany, I was asked to use a play-back designed for detecting at least two target species of woodpeckers during the breeding season; ideally the volonteers should monitor four target species (in some regions from 5-6), and so I did. I won´t discuss here the methodology imposed by the leaders of the monitoring programm and will omitt the details of how the play-back was dsinged and had to be used in the montoring, although the design seemed to me highly questionable from a scientific point of view and is a debate worth. The fact is that on my opinion playing audios of target species in a natural area for monitoring has rather a negative impact on any of the target species and other non-target species. This “cost” for the birds, on my opinion, does not compensate the “benefit” for the observer. Predatory birds (Accipiter gentilis and Buteo buteo) and very noisy crows (Corvus corax) were also alarmed by the playbacked “drummings” and “callings” of the audio and were flying around the area where I was sitting and monitoring. Other smaller birds (different species of Paridae) that use to follow Dendrocopos major, probably to get advantage over its hard work during foraging (pecking wood, stripping of bark, etc) were attrackted also and became very excited. As the drummings and callings were all fake, their effort in reaching the spot and calling other mates was systematically frustrated and lead to no success in a cold, misty day with predators around… My “benefit” by using play-back was meager; I just detected one species more from other three that I detected simply through listening and visiting the area several times without using playback and could see one of these three species that I detected days before. Regards, Alexandra

    1. Hi Alexandra, Thanks for sharing your experience. I also rarely use playback, partly because it changes the way the birds behave so I don’t feel like I’m “getting to know them” as well, and also because it distracts me from the focus of just watching and listening.

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