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A Perspective on Playbacks When Birding

By Bryony Angell

People birding

Birding with the Audubon Bird Guide App: Photo by Camilla Cerea/Audubon

Bird enthusiasts have long used a bird’s own song to draw their quarry to closer observation. Whether the song was whistled (birding first became a recreational pastime in the late 19th century, when few sound recording devices existed) or serenaded by the grainy recording of a tape recorder, what we now call “playbacks” — playing the recording of a bird’s song or call — was limited to few serious birders and scientists. Playbacks are an effective tool in finding more elusive birds, and these early birders with recordings proved the technique’s success.

Now, with recorded birdsong available across digital media at the touch of an app, the use of playbacks has become mainstream, to the alarm of some birders. From the annoyance of realizing a song you heard is someone’s cell phone to the justified concern of playback overuse and possible disturbance of the very birds we revere, playbacks can be a contentious issue.

But consider Dennis Paulson’s droll take on playbacks: “I think they are only contentious because of the great variation in attitudes in people, characteristic of our species and apparent in just about everything we do,” he says. Paulson, retired Director of the Slater Museum of Natural History at the University of Puget Sound and Seattle Audubon’s Master Birder Program Instructor, advocates moderate use of playbacks.

 “What a lot of anti-playback people don’t realize is that we disturb birds by our very presence in the environment, and it’s quite possible that by playing a bird’s song, getting it to come out for a good view for a few minutes, and then leaving, we are disturbing it much less than if we had milled around there for many minutes trying to catch a glimpse of it,” Paulson says. 

He suggests the maligning of playbacks may come from a far too human perception of disturbance. “A person studying bird species can tell you that this is the life of a bird. Always the potential for a territorial intruder, always the potential for a wandering male wanting to mate with another male’s mate, always the potential of a predator.” Paulson describes a life of constant drama and disruption for a wild bird, and that a single song from a recorded device is of small consequence in the big picture.

People birding

Birding with the Audubon Bird Guide App: Photo by Camilla Cerea/Audubon

Then you have the birder who is less inclined to use recorded song looking for birds. Chris McCreedy, a research associate at Point Blue Conservation Science and an avian ecologist for Atwell in Tucson, Arizona, is no technology forswearing Luddite; he uses eBird and tracks rare bird listserv notifications, using both to set a new Big Year record for Arizona in 2017. But he doesn’t use playbacks. His angle against playbacks is that of gamesmanship; playbacks simply aren’t fair play when birding, and especially so when listing competitively. “Listing is about the birds…Birds are beautiful, ugly, weird, and they have wings. They are hard to find! And to me, they disappear when you press Play, replaced by a number,” he writes in a 2013 guest post for the American Birding Association Blog.

If I had to decide for myself, I’ll keep birding in the analog fashion of a gal who only recently uploaded the first birding app to her smart phone. I didn’t grow up birding competitively and the sole vocalization tried in my family was my father’s loud, guttural shriek imitation call used to summon the resident ravens at our Lopez Island cabin. But even calling in didn’t stick with me; I don’t vocalize, and I only use the audio on my birding app after the fact, to confirm a birdsong I heard earlier. I don’t have to see a bird to be satisfied; simply knowing it’s there is good enough for me.

woman with playback

Birding with the Audubon Bird Guide App: Photo by Camilla Cerea/Audubon

Enough dissent about playbacks exists among the users of our natural world that the National Parks Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service restrict playbacks within those public lands. In the UK, the use of playbacks is socially frowned upon and outright illegal for certain birds at breeding time. But ultimately, it seems to be David Sibley who has the last word on playbacks for most American birding organizations. Paulson, as well as the American Birding Association, both mention Sibley’s assessment of the playback debate as the best standard to follow. Sibley errs on conservative and specific use of playbacks, which you can read more about on his website. However you choose to use or not use playbacks, you can certainly benefit from knowing birdsong. Whether it’s played from your phone or from the throat of your desired bird, the music is from nature, and is the reason we are all birders in the first place.

Bryony Angell is a member of Seattle Audubon’s board of directors, a writer, and a long-time birder. 

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