For the Birds Radio Program: Playing Recordings to Draw in Birds

Original Air Date: July 30, 2003

Laura wrestles with the ethics of playing bird songs to draw them in. Date confirmed

Audio missing


Playing tapes

For most birders, seeing is only half the fun—listening to birds can bring us as much joy as seeing them, and most of the birds a birder notices are heard, not seen. After all, birds sing to be noticed—to attract a mate and to declare the boundaries of their territories. So we’re not the only ones listening to bird songs—other birds are hearing and responding to them, too.

During the breeding season, birds often approach when they hear their song. That’s why one of the most popular ways of attracting birds out into the open to get good looks is by playing recordings of their songs. More and more birders are doing this, in more and more places. It’s certainly effective—that’s why bird guides lug minidisk or tape players and speakers along and go to all the bother of finding the specific recordings they want. So suddenly birding has become very high tech. Nowadays many people taking bird trips with a guide expect that guide to produce the birds they want to see. It’s impossible to guarantee that a group will see a particular species, but the likelihood is definitely increased when the guide plays recordings to entice the birds in.

The response birds make when they hear their song is variable, but laboratory studies show that a bird’s heart rate goes up when it hears its song. So there’s physiological evidence that birds feel at least somewhat stressed when they hear their song. Often they fly in ready to attack the intruder on their territory. But whether they fight to defend their territory or just investigate the source of the sound, they’re spending time away from their babies.

So many of us feel uncomfortable with the whole idea of playing recordings in the field. I record birds, but to play back indoors—to teach people various bird songs, to listen to myself when I want to conjure up an auditory memory, or sometimes for this program. But I just don’t feel right playing recordings to birds. When I was in graduate school, I did a birdsong playback experiment on a small group of Savannah Sparrows. When I played their song, not only did the resident Savannah Sparrows get agitated and fly in, but so did Field Sparrows, who for some reason responded even more vehemently to Savannah Sparrow recordings than the Savannahs did. And the birds seemed to stick around me as long as I played the tape—they weren’t spending any time finding food for babies or working on the nest or anything else. So as soon as I was done collecting my data for the class, I put my tape recorder away for good—at least as far as outdoor use went. I’ve been on some bird tours with guides who used playback to bring in birds, and as fun as it was getting good looks even with a large group, it made me feel very uncomfortable. But for some inconsistent reason, I don’t mind calling in birds by imitating their voices. I’ve hooted in lots of Barred Owls, and a fair assortment of other birds, using my voice. I mentally justify it as somehow more sporting than using a recording, and thinking that the birds have a better chance of recognizing that it’s a not a real bird. But even so, I feel guilty making the bird stick around too long.

The American Birding Association has a set of ethical guidelines which birders are expected to adhere to. One of them is “Limit the use of recordings and other methods of attracting birds, and never use such methods in heavily birded areas, or for attracting any species that is Threatened, Endangered, or of Special Concern, or is rare in your local area.” But this sure leaves birders a lot of loopholes. Birding guides in some of the most popular birding areas up here, like the Sax-Zim Bog, probably shouldn’t use playback recordings at all, but if some do, then there’s pressure on others to use it, too. I have friends who use recordings, and I don’t know that I’d be willing to say I think they’re wrong, or even that playing recordings really hurts birds. But distracting them from their babies so birders can look at them certainly doesn’t help. It’s becoming harder and harder for many kinds of birds to survive on this little planet, and they have no alternative. It just seems like birders more than anyone should be doing their best to give birds some peace. Why is it that we always hurt the ones we love?