There’s a birdwatcher in Central Park in New York City who calls himself Birding Bob. He leads bird walks in the park for the nominal sum of $10. But according to the New York Times, Bob ruffles the feathers of some birdwatchers. What he does is play bird calls, which some birdwatchers consider unethical because it disturbs the normal routine of birds. In the video he plays the alarm call of a vireo, which clearly upsets some birds like a Red-breasted Nuthatch which appears out of the brush.
The American Birding Association Code of Birding Ethics states that birders should “Avoid stressing birds or exposing them to danger. Be particularly cautious around active nests and nesting colonies, roosts, display sites, and feeding sites. Limit the use of recordings and other audio methods of attracting birds, particularly in heavily birded areas, for species that are rare in the area, and for species that are threatened or endangered.”
When a bird hears a recording, it probably cannot tell if the sound is recorded, although often the recordings are made in a different part of the country and the local birds may not recognize or respond to it. But if they do, they might consider the call or song made by an invader intent on claiming its territory. Then the resident may seek out the intruder to attack it. The recording distracts the resident bird from its normal duties of foraging, building a nest, caring for the young or eggs, or doing feather maintenance. Instead, the distressed bird is fooled into wasting its time chasing a ghost.
The ethics of playing of bird calls or songs to attract birds is an unresolved issue with little evidence to support a particular opinion. But there was an interesting study done in Ecuador on wrens and antpittas. The study pointed out that recording played in the field could have negative, neutral, or even positive effects on native birds. Other studies point out that birds responding to playbacks respond differently to playbacks or other birds afterwards and that testosterone levels may increase in birds hearing a competitor’s call.
In India, under the Wildlife Protection Act, calling birds is illegal because it is considered “baiting.” But in the U.S. waterfowl and turkey hunters often use artificial calls to attract their targets. And what about “pishing”, an imitated hissing bird call that generally imitates an alarm call of chickadees and titmice that entices birds to come out into the open because they are curious or hear the sound as an invitation to join a mixed species flock? There’s even a book on it.
National and State Parks vary in their rules on this but generally discourage playbacks and pishing. Yosemite just plain bans playbacks. Everything considered, I vote for not using recordings at all and using pishing judiciously. With open spaces becoming more crowded and with fewer places for birds to live out their lives, why harass them even more? And it’s just a matter of time before birdwatchers start following each other’s playback. I know. I surreptitiously snuck up on a Yellow-billed Cuckoo song only to surprise a graduate student of mine crouched in the bushes with a tape recorder.