Birding Bob

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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.

Birding Bob

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.

6 thoughts on “Birding Bob”

  1. Hi – you have some information in your review that is not quite correct. For example, I use a social call of a red-breasted nuthatch to bring in conspecifics (others of the same species). They are social birds and when hearing others of their kind come in close to see what is going on. They sometimes land on our heads and/or backpacks. It is fun…and we always point out that if birds are so bothered by the calls, why do they fly to them and not away? To us, birds seem curious about sound and come in to see what is going on. In the case of the Red-eyed Vireo call I use, this is a call that the species makes when finding an owl – again the other birds come in to see what the problem might be…and finding nothing drift back into the woods after 30 seconds to two minutes…AND we often see them feeding on insects right in front of us. So the problem is???? We think birders worry too much sometimes – and there are more important problems to be concerned with. On the other hand, bringing birds closer to people has a magical effect on most everyone – and makes people more concerned with the birds welfare via habitat protection; eliminating reflective glass at/near ground level etc. So we make bird watchers of many people…and in the big picture that good far outweighs the worry some birders have about what I am doing…By the way, that guy birding bob (me) has a PhD in evolutionary biology with many publications on North American birds as well as birds in Nepal, Thailand and Malaysia…

    I wrote up an entire issue of my (almost) weekly Newsletter on the use of sound to attract birds, please have a look and I think your fears will be eased:

    Come see for yourself…only $10 for a bird walk…and on weekends you get two walks for the price of one (7:30am until 12:30pm)…what else can you find for $10 in NYC?


    Robert DeCandido PhD

    1. Bob, thanks for writing. I have two issues with calling birds. One is that you are interrupting their usual activities. They come closer thinking that they need to for some reason, taking time away from whatever else they were doing. Secondly, the more birds get used to people, the more likely they are to get in trouble. I have personally seen several instances of birds habituating to humans, getting closer, and then being eaten by a dog or cat, shot ot captured by the human, etc. Just because the birds don’t seem afraid is not a good sign. By the way, I have a PhD in Zoology with dozens of ornithological publications and 11 books on birds. And I give lots of bird walks to the general public – for free.

      1. Robert DeCandido

        well…again I suggest reading the issue of my Newsletter where I present evidence from “experts” on the use of sound to attract birds: people from Cornell for example. I also present my views and experience. You might want to try using sound for a while to see what you can and cannot do – it is a lot of fun. We are at the beginning of an age of using new technology, and people’s fears are way ahead and counter to what happens in real life – in my experience using sound for the last 15 years.

        To take your two concerns: people have changed the behavior of birds throughout the ages. If you go to Hawk Mountain (PA) or the Hawk Ridge sight in MN…they use an owl decoy to lure in as many raptors as possible to fly at/strike the owl. Isn’t that changing the behavior of birds? People feed birds by hand all the time (chickadees, titmice, gulls) – you would have people stop doing that? People put up artificial nest boxes for Wood Ducks, Peregrine Falcons (platforms) – should people stop that?

        I have never seen/heard of the examples you cite. You might want to write that up for a scientific journal, perhaps such anecdotal evidence might be worthwhile. On the other hand, is it significant in the grand scheme of things?

        Anyway, it is amazing we live in the USA where multiple views on the same subject can be expressed and implemented. (I’ll continue to use sound and leave it up to others to decide what they would like to do based upon their experiences.) Currently in South Africa where the guides and birders use sound quite often – and they smile when I recount the sometimes strict, “ethical” views/people I encounter in regards to sound and birds.

        Do read the Newsletter I linked to – it will hopefully ease your concerns.

        The Bob

        1. I appreciate your input. I have used sound and have been with others who were much better at it than me. I just don’t agree that it is harmless. The more people get used to birds up close and personal and the more familiar the birds get with humans, the more likely something unfortunate will happen to the birds. I didn’t know that Hawk Mountain used an owl decoy. That clearly stresses the birds for the sake of perhaps over-enthusiastic bird watchers/counters. Feeding birds by hand – sure, some, like ducks and geese at the local farm pond, pigeons in the park, gulls at a beach, crows and house sparrows on a farm ok. But not Chickadees in the woods. And hats with built-in hummingbird feeders? That’s a bit nuts. Wild birds are entertaining but that’s not their role in life and we should not act like it. Artificial nest boxes simply provide nesting sites that have disappeared due to logging or other tree clearing, so I think that’s beneficial.
          I think our differences on this issue reflect the differences in the bird watching world. The people I associate with I think (I really haven’t done any kind of a survey) would agree with me. It could be bicoastal differences or Central Park vs other areas.
          OK, that said, where can I locate a copy of your newsletter so I can give it a read?

  2. Rog – in my first response I linked to the issue of my Newsletter with mucho info on the positives of using sound to attract birds…but here it is again:

    was just out on a pelagic birding trip where offal (a smelly oily mixture) was used by the birders leading the trip to lure in all sorts of pelagic birds to our boat to be seen/photographed close up. There is nothing to eat in that offal…so ok birders lured in birds with no benefit whatsoever to the birds themselves. And guess what? The birds (albatrosses, petrels) were no worse for it…and perhaps with this experience of seeing birds up close, both birders and non-birders will feel somewhat compelled to want to do something positive for the environment and even birds themselves.

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