Are Playback Apps Good or Bad for Birding?

Playback helped find this rare Indigo Bunting near Peppersauce Canyon (photo Bob Bowers)

Playback helped find this rare Indigo Bunting near Peppersauce Canyon (photo Bob Bowers)

I would guess there are few people around unfamiliar with apps, but if you’re one of them, here’s a quick explanation:  Apps, short for ‘mobile application software’, are clever little programs you can download (often for free) onto your iPhone, Droid or other mobile device, giving you the ability to play games, connect socially, stay current with news and weather, plot your caloric intake, map a route, find the cheapest nearby gas station and a million other things.  Literally.  Apple now offers more than a million apps with thousands of new ones added monthly, and more than 60 billion have been downloaded.

You don't need playback to get a good look at a Bananaquit (photo Bob Bowers)

You don’t need playback to get a good look at a Bananaquit (photo Bob Bowers)

There are apps for just about everything, and birding is no exception.  You can download a Sibley birding app, for example, that puts most of the 3-pound, 545-page ‘Sibley Guide to Birds’ in your pocket, including thousands of colored illustrations and range maps for all birds found north of Mexico.  The app lets you organize this wealth of information taxonomically or alphabetically by either first or last name, and gives you comparitive side-by-side drawings of similar birds.  The app’s most dramatic feature, however, is its ‘playback’.  Playback allows the user to play the calls and songs of more than 900 birds.  This powerful tool is significantly valuable to field ornithologists, guides and anyone wanting to learn more about birds.  Using playback to learn songs has helped me identify hidden birds, and in leading field trips I have used playback to find elusive birds for birders who have never seen them.  In Mexico this January we found a beautiful kingbird perched in the open.  Easily seen, we still couldn’t identify him with certainty.  We knew it was either a Tropical or a Couch’s Kingbird, but they are identical except for their song, and this bird wasn’t singing.  I played a short snippet of the Couch’s song and the bird answered back with the same, giving us a positive ID (and a new ‘life bird’).  In spite of these benefits, however, playback is controversial and has no shortage of critics.

Birds establish territories for feeding, attracting mates and nesting, and males patrol these territories, singing to draw a mate or to keep competitors at bay.  Playback leads the bird to think another male is challenging his territory, and he’ll fly to the sound to defend his territory, giving the birder an opportunity to see a bird he might otherwise miss.

Using playback when a predator is near could prove fatal (photo Bob Bowers)

Using playback when a predator is near could prove fatal (photo Bob Bowers)

Detractors argue that field use of playback can be harmful to birds by luring them into the open, exposing them or their nestlings to predators, by disturbing the status and relationship of males to females and by distracting and stressing birds unnecessarily.  Critics also cite the impact on other birders, who can be misled and annoyed by artificial song recordings while they are listening for real songs to track birds.  While the annoyance factor is inarguable (think of cell phone use in a restaurant or theater), actual harm to birds has not been proven.  Harm theories seem logical, but there are counter arguments that are equally credible.   Supporters argue the use of playback is actually less disruptive to birds, saying that drawing a bird into view from a distance is better than physically invading the habitat.  They also point out that playback targets a single species, with little or no impact on other birds, and that successful playback will minimize the time (and disruption) of birders in the habitat.  Even a birder sitting quietly for a prolonged time in a bird’s habitat can have negative impact.

Playback proved this bird was a Couch's Kingbird, not his lookalike, the Tropical Kingbird (photo Bob Bowers)

Playback proved this bird was a Couch’s Kingbird, not his lookalike, the Tropical Kingbird (photo Bob Bowers)

Birding by any means is generally invasive and disruptive to birds.  Tramping through habitat, pointing binoculars, scopes and long-lensed cameras at feeding, foraging and nesting birds can impact them, and there is little difference between birders using playback and those who pish or mimic bird calls and songs.  Consequently, lacking scientific findings to the contrary, playback seems a useful and acceptable tool.  Nevertheless, the field use of such a powerful device should be moderate and responsible.  Playback should not be used when other birders are present without their permission or where prohibited.  In a birding group, the leader decides whether or not to use playback, and if you are alone, the decision obviously is yours.  There should be a reason to use it (if birds are obvious or otherwise identifiable, it’s unnecessary), and if you choose to use playback it should be limited to a targeted bird.  Use calls rather than songs first, and play short snippets with longer intervals of silence.  Birding is a lot like fishing.  If you get no response within a few minutes, move on.  Above all else, don’t overdo it.  I suspect that birds can get just as annoyed at excessive playback as we can with cell phones in restaurants.

(This article originally appeared in the May, 2014 issue of the Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona.)

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About Bob

A lifelong naturalist, Bob's avocation is birding, including field observation, study, photography and writing. He spent a career in computers and consulting, but his free time has been spent outdoors backpacking, fishing and enjoying nature firsthand. Bob has traveled extensively, exploring and photographing above and underwater in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Egypt and throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America. Now retired, as an amateur ornithologist Bob studies, photographs and writes primarily about birds of the Western Hemisphere. Formerly the Feature Writer for Latin America and Caribbean Travel at Suite101.com, he has been Suite101's Feature Writer for Birds and Birding since January, 2010, and has received seven Editor's Choice awards, which are listed below. Bob also writes a monthly birding column for a newspaper in Arizona, and his work appears in the travel magazine, Another Day in Paradise, published in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. His blog, Birding the 'Brooke and Beyond, discusses birding, travel and other topics in Southeast Arizona and beyond. Bob is a member of the National and Tucson Audubon Societies, Western Field Ornithologists, Arizona Field Ornithologists, the American Birding Association and other birding and conservation organizations. Bob and his wife, Prudy, live in the Santa Catalina Mountain foothills near Tucson, Arizona. To date, Bob has received Suite101 Editor's Choice awards for the following articles: • Birding by Cruise Ship in the Caribbean • The Xantus' Hummingbird, Baja California's Only Endemic Hummer • Birding the White Mountains in and Around Greer, Arizona • The Greater Roadrunner, New Mexico's State Bird • Where to Find Steelhead on the Lower Deschutes River in Oregon • Birding La Bajada near San Blas, Mexico • The 2008 Christmas Bird Count at Estero del Yugo in Mazatlan
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