With migration largely behind us and breeding season in full swing, it’s time to think about the use of birdsong recordings (commonly called playback) to attract birds in the field. This controversial practice has become more and more commonplace as phone apps put these recordings in the hands of many more birders.
Why does anyone play recordings to attract birds? During the nesting season, playback can attract birds that are defending their breeding and nesting territory. Hearing the song can make the bird think that a rival individual has entered its territory, so the bird rises from its nesting area to defend itself and its mate. Alternately, the bird may not respond to the perceived intruder at all, hunkering down near its nest and staying silent. Sometimes a female will emerge from the nesting area to check out the new singing male, to see if he may be preferable to the one she’s already chosen. Birds also may respond to playback in the fall or winter, but breeding season is when the use of recordings can be most effective.
All of this being said, the bird’s response to playback briefly disrupts its process of nesting, breeding, and raising young, raising many questions about whether the use of recordings is actually harmful to birds.
The American Birding Association has this to say in its code of ethics: “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.”
The use of “limit” here leaves plenty of room for interpretation. What use of recordings is enough, and what is too much? What about “other audio methods” like pishing and imitating screech owl calls? How do we decide?
David Sibley wrote an article on the Sibley Guides website that examines this issue in considerable detail. (He updates the article regularly to reflect the most current thinking, with the last update made on February 13, 2020.)
Sibley points out that playback is prohibited in many parks and wildlife refuges, and that federal law already protects endangered or threatened species from “disturbance,” further prohibiting the use of playback. However, only one study to date (Mennill et al 2002) has actually shown a detrimental effect on birds exposed to continuous playback: the high-ranking male birds, in this case Black-capped Chickadees, lost status among their own ranks because they could not chase away the singing intruder.
“Researchers generally agree that the effects of playback are poorly-known, but are probably (paradoxically) both far-reaching and small,” Sibley writes.
With so little research on the subject, it is difficult for the RBA to take a stand absolutely against the use of playback. Certainly our members have had the experience of attending a field trip and seeing the leader use playback to attract a desired species. We often hear the question, “If the leaders can do it, why can’t I?”
There are no “birding police” in the field, so it’s up to each individual birder to act responsibly on his or her own.