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An elegant trogon.

A male elegant trogon sitting on a tree branch.

Photograph by Don Grall, Visuals Unlimited/Corbis

Mel White

for National Geographic

Published June 14, 2013

Part of our weekly "In Focus" series—stepping back, looking closer.

Last April I was leading a group of beginning birders along a trail beside the Arkansas River, helping them learn to spot and identify some of the dozens of species present on this beautiful spring morning. At one point I heard a distinctive song coming from a thicket: the wichity-wichity-wichity of a male common yellowthroat.

Now, common yellowthroats are indeed common where I live, not to say abundant—but that doesn't mean they're easy to see. These little wood-warblers prefer to stay hidden in dense vegetation, and if they perch within view it's usually for only a couple of seconds before disappearing again.

I pulled out my mobile phone, told the group to gather around, and played a recording of the common yellowthroat song from a bird-watching application I'd downloaded. The male almost immediately hopped up to the limb of a shrub and posed for us, to the accompaniment of oohs and aahs from viewers admiring its bright-yellow breast and black "bandit" mask. Most of the people in the group had never seen a common yellowthroat before, and in fact didn't even know the species existed.

What I did is the subject of serious and ever-intensifying debate in the birding community—the equivalent in polarization potential of asking baseball fans if the National League should adopt the designated hitter. The normally shy male yellowthroat approached us because he thought my phone was another male of his species, a rival for his territory and his mate. The male we saw was ready to challenge, and even fight, the intruder. I cost him a little bit of energy, a little bit of time, and a little bit of stress, just so a few newbie bird-watchers could look at him.

 

A male Common yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) on a branch.

Photograph by George Grall, National Geographic

 

The ethics of using recordings to attract birds has been controversial since the days of clunky cassette machines. Now, anybody with a smartphone and a few dollars has instant access to the songs and calls of every species in the United States, and in quite a few foreign countries, too. Walking down a trail and hear a white-eyed vireo in the bushes? Push, swipe, tap, tap . . . He's in your face. It's easy—but is it wrong?

As is the case with a lot of life's questions, the answer is: It depends. Most birders—and ornithologists, too, for that matter—would have no complaint about what I did: briefly playing the song of a common species for (at least semi-) educational purposes and then quickly moving away and leaving the bird in peace. Who knows? Maybe one of those beginners was so excited by our morning that he or she became an avid birder and got involved with habitat conservation.

Slippery Slope

The trouble is, there's a slippery slope leading toward harassment of rare and/or endangered birds and, in the worst case, genuine interference with their nesting success. And the slope got a lot steeper with the proliferation of smartphones and birdsong apps. They're far easier to use than cassette tapes, and many more people have them.

Genuine scientific research on the subject is rare, and what exists is contradictory. But a number of bad things could happen when a birder plays a song to attract a bird. Momentarily distracted, the bird could be snatched up by a predatory hawk (this has been witnessed a number of times by distraught birders). One study showed that females lost "respect" (to anthropomorphize a bit) for mates who couldn't drive away a rival, as would seem to be the case when a recording is played for a long time, and the females went on to copulate with other males. It's long been believed that a bird unable to chase away an intruder might abandon a breeding territory, though it's questionable how often this actually happens. In winter, when food may be scarce and birds need every bit of energy they can get, chasing a nonexistent rival could physically weaken a bird by causing it to needlessly burn calories.

The American Birding Association takes an equivocal position on the use of recordings. This nonprofit group makes the rules many bird-watchers voluntarily comply with regarding their often-competitive lists (totals of all species seen in a certain area or during a period of time). The organization's Code of Ethics suggests that birders "[l]imit 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."

So, what is heavily birded? And how rare is rare? A relatively few birders take the position that using recordings is bad for birds, period, and refuse to use them at any time.

Banned in National Parks

And there are places where it's not a question of ethics, but of law.

Birders have long traveled to the South Fork of Cave Creek Canyon in Arizona's Chiricahua National Forest to look for the elegant trogon. This spot is one of the best and most accessible places to spot the gorgeous green-and-red bird, which has an extremely limited range in the United States. So many birders used recordings to attract the bird that the U.S. Forest Service became concerned that the birds were being harassed and banned the use of recordings in the canyon. Many other parks and sanctuaries have followed suit. National parks, for example, ban the use of audio and other mechanical devices to attract all wildlife, including birds.

There are many ways, of course, to use recordings of birdsong. The Colima warbler is found in the United States only in a small part of the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park. If you went there and played its song on the Boot Canyon Trail, you might well have an unpleasant encounter with a ranger—and you'd deserve the fine you'd probably have to pay.

But there's nothing wrong with playing the song in your tent or vehicle right before you start your hike, to remind yourself what it sounds like and increase your chances of finding it once you reach its nesting area. I've done this often, most recently on a birding trip to Arizona. My phone was a convenient way to study and memorize the songs of birds I hadn't heard in years, such as the northern beardless-tyrannulet and rufous-winged sparrow.

Even in the field, in some situations it may be better to use recordings than not. What's more disruptive, for instance: to play a song and quickly and briefly bring a bird into view so that a group can see it, or to have a dozen people walking around near a nesting site for 20 minutes trying to find it?

Everybody agrees that it's unethical for a birder to go to a popular park and loudly play the song of a rare species for five minutes just to put a check mark on a list. And most people think it's okay to play a recording quietly a couple of times to bring in a common bird for a quick look. But what about that gray area in the middle?

Here's the rule followed by many: If in doubt, err on the side of the bird, and keep your phone in your pocket.

8 comments
Ursula Lowrey
Ursula Lowrey

The practice of "pishing" wasn't mentioned. One makes "pish, pish pish" sounds with one's mouth. While not as effective as playing a recording of birdsong, this was the old standby to lure birds out of hiding by thinking they were mobbing a predator like an owl. If it works, the results could be the same for the bird - distraction, burning energy, etc.

Paris Saizan
Paris Saizan

As enticing as it would be to know you have a the key to draw out the species you desire to see, the fact remains, the bird lives  (and dies) based on an entirely different set of parameters. Their exposing themselves to potentially mate or form a relationship to ultimately propagate their species is an entire waste if what they are reacting and responding to is a recording. Why we watch birds is the thrill it gives us on so many levels. Why the bird responds to the recording are for far more serious reasons. If we are studying a bird and its habitat to ensure its survival and the use of such a recording is proactive and, indeed, genuinely useful for the bird, let the expert be the innocuous expert. However, humans have routinely and in broadly impacting actions, literally ruined species, their home, rangelands and very existence for far more nobler causes. I say, let it go. If you want to review the call, use ear buds. Else, honor that which we have for today.

Jyotirmayi Banerjee
Jyotirmayi Banerjee

India has seen a rise in the number of wildlife photographers powered by  the digital boom. Previously it was people who were genuinely interested in wildlife conservation who pursued this hobby as it is both time taking and expensive. But now almost any one can jump into bird photography. The negative consequences of this outweighs the positive outcome ie spreading awareness. People form non biology background do not understand the ecological relationships. They flush, encroach nesting areas, play calls continuously just so they can post a pic on facebook. Some birders even smoke cigarettes while they are within a birding habitat. Photographers use flash to capture a better image even at day time. I remember the winter of 2011, when siberian rubythroat was spotted at Nalban fisheries in Kolkata, a first in Kolkata's bird watching history. As soon as the message spread, people flocked to the spot every day, playing calls continuously to catch a glimpse. The bird has not been sighted since, in the next season. May be the constant playing of alarm calls and calls of hawk cuckoo (prey bird) made the bird to perceive that the location was not suitable for nesting. 

One may argue that playing calls may help prospective naturalists to take the plunge into conservation activities. But I wonder how many of the newly initiated birders and photographers do anything beyond posting the image in social networking sites.  

Donna Bollenbach
Donna Bollenbach

This reminds me of the current dilemma of nature photography, also brought on by the advances and affordability of digital technology. When film cameras were the only choice, not only were there fewer nature photographers, but most nature photographers spent less time photographing any one subject, thus sparing the subject the prolonged stress of human encroachment in their territory. Today nesting sites are shared across the internet and, on any given day, a group of photographers can be found at the nest site, some staying for hours at a time and taking hundreds of digital images.  No doubt that the digital revolution has given rise to a new generation of nature enthusiasts, but I question if the majority do it out of a love of nature or a love of technology. The competition to get the first, most and closest image of any subject is evident by the majority of the nature images shared on the web. While the explosion of new birders and nature photographer's could be viewed as great force to support the preservation of species and natural resources, without ethical restraint and respect for wildlife, they will do more harm than good. The ethics of nature photography, birding and "leave no trace" should be posted at the entrance to every park in North America. Professional organizations should make it a priority to publish and share ethics guidelines outside their membership. With a growing tech savvy user ship, it seems inevitable that parks will need to enforce new laws to protect wildlife, but education in ethics will lessen the number and scope of the new rules, thus maintaining a solid support for conservation.

 

Jonathan Coffey
Jonathan Coffey

One thing I have started doing is wearing one headphone and playing the song to confirm a species. Bird doesn't hear it and I get my ID. 

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