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Recorded Bird Song

posted by Jeff Bilsky at
on Friday, March 4, 2011 

Our results show that short playback sessions can have longlasting
and far-reaching effects on individual fitness.

I've been re-examining my thoughts about playing recorded bird song in the field. I used to say "what's another voice in the chorus?" But after reading this article, I'm starting to feel a bit differently. I was surprised at the implications of this study and thought it would be worth sharing.

I welcome comments and thoughts! Thank you.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Really interesting, Jeff. Thanks for the post. Apparently playing recordings to bring birds into our sight can cause even more problems than exposing the bird to predators. Guess I'll use my recordings to teach myself to recognize songs in the field, rather than to up my chances of seeing the bird.

March 7, 2011 at 9:52 AM  
Anonymous Norm Jenson said...

It's my understanding that it is also illegal to play calls in a National Wildlife Refuge, but I can't remember where I heard that.

March 7, 2011 at 11:22 AM  
Blogger Tim Avery said...

From the ABA Code of Ethics:

1. Promote the welfare of birds and their environment:

1(b) To avoid stressing birds or exposing them to danger, exercise restraint and caution during observation, photography, sound recording, or filming.

The ABA needs to update this to include overusing playback.

My personal opinion lies somewhere in between, and is often situational. For instance, I believe that use of playback to educate birders about certain species is useful. I have led a number of owling trips over the years and always stress not to overuse tapes, or to return to the same locations on multiple occasions. I also believe that it is okay for scientific purposes and studies.

I rarely use tapes when birding alone, and will usually only use them if there are not other groups of birders around--even then it is sparse. I do occasionally use them for photography, but try to keep it short, and to move on after a few minutes.

One of my biggest pet peeves is people walking around at Garr Ranch or Lytle Ranch with their iPod strapped to them playing songs for every single common species found there. And conversely for every rare bird. I think the use of tapes when rare (or out of range) birds are around is completely self serving and usually fruitless. Migrants could hardly care about a singing male bird, they are on a mission to get food to survive. At best the bird ignores the song and goes out its business, at worst it's an added stress to an already fragile out of place individual.

Extensive use of tapes for photography is perhaps the most selfish use of tapes. Not only does this become extremely stressful on the birds, it also makes the poses they are often in abnormal. Sitting on the side of the road, or in a bush with your iPod on for 10 minutes to get a sparrow, or a warbler to appear for you to shoot a half dozen pictures shows only concern for getting your picture, and lack of care about the health of the birds. It also is kind of lazy. I have as I said used iPods on occasion for photos, but I would guess tat 99% of what I have photographed have been natural encounters with birds.

I know plenty of "real photographers" out there who live by the tape--that is to say without it their collections would have far fewer photos.

Tapes were created to learn birds songs and calls so that you know what to listen for when you go out. They are a helpful tool, and in some cases must be used to find birds that would otherwise never be heard or seen. But at the end of the day everyone should examine their use of tapes and how much they use them. If it's more than 1-5% of the time you are birding, it's way too much.

And that's my opinion on that.

March 7, 2011 at 11:52 AM  
Blogger Jeff Bilsky said...

@Tim - I think you summed it up rather nicely.

March 7, 2011 at 12:32 PM  
Blogger Jon said...

Agreed, limit use, use sparingly. Norman, yes, general rule of thumb not to use recordings in refuges, preserves and nat'l/state parks, and even around nesting activity (Jeff's article certainly gives more weight to that last point, wow).

Recordings or no, it's most fun to watch a bird in its natural state, natural behaviors. That stressed out look when bothered just doesn't provide the same birding experience for me. When birds don't provide the best views, sometimes moving on is the best option vs aggressive efforts to get it out in the open.

I've heard about professional guides (especially guides from one big company in particular) that will arrive at a songbird hot spot, and crank out a Screech Owl call at high volume and sustained length, with an 'enjoy the show' mentality. Seems a little excessive? Have others heard about this practice?

March 7, 2011 at 4:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am wondering why the study suggests that the female of a high ranking male who is used to her mate "winning" the song contests would consider the contest with a recorded song a loss? Especially if the intruder stops "singing" after a few minutes and moves on. You would think this would look like a victory...just wondering.
I am all for disturbing the birds we love to see as little as possible. I also worry about un-intended consequences of things we un-knowingly do while trying to find and photograph birds...


March 9, 2011 at 10:52 AM  
Anonymous Jerry Liguori said...

I'm not a fan of tapes....never have been, especially nesting birds.

March 9, 2011 at 8:48 PM  

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