Are birdwatching ‘playbacks’ bad for birds?

Birdwatchers seem like a bird’s best friend. They help promote bird conservation, and as citizen scientists, they often collect avian population data.

But birdwatchers also frequently play recordings of bird calls in the wild to attract their quarry. On some birdwatching tours, guides repeat these “playbacks” for rare birds for more than an hour in order to satisfy their curious customers. Does the constant chatter end up harming the birds?

Researchers argue in PLOS ONE that this question hasn’t been adequately answered. It’s possible that responding to the recorded calls could sap the birds’ energy, distract them from looking for food, or place them in the path of a predator, the authors say. Results of previous research have been mixed: Some scientists found that playbacks didn’t affect the songs of male finches, while others reported that playbacks influenced female chickadees’ mating decisions. Some studies even suggest that recorded calls could benefit birds by prompting them to move to new territory or spend more time building nests.

J. Berton C. Harris, a researcher now at Princeton University in New Jersey, decided to investigate the question in Ecuador. First, he scouted for the locations of two species, plain-tailed wrens and rufous antpittas. Then Harris played bird calls for five minutes to 36 groups of wrens or antpittas and recorded their responses. He also monitored how they responded to recordings of background noise, such as the sounds of insects and wind.

After the playbacks, the wrens sang more duets and the antpittas sang more songs than they did after hearing background noise, Harris and a colleague report. The birds also tended to repeat these songs more often. “[P]layback could negatively affect species if they become stressed, expend energy, or take time away from other activities to respond to playback,” the team writes.

But another experiment suggested that the birds might become used to the extra noise. Harris played call recordings to five groups of wrens for five minutes per day over about three weeks. He monitored behavior such as how close the birds came to the speaker and how long it took them to respond to the playback. By the twelfth day, “wrens showed little or no response,” according to the study. So if playbacks are frequent, birds might eventually stop paying attention. Roberta Kwok | 14 October 2013

Source: Harris, J.B.C. and D.G. Haskell. 2013. Simulated birdwatchers’ playback affects the behavior of two tropical birds. PLOS ONE doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0077902.

Image © 4736202690 | Shutterstock

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4 Comments

  • Chris O'Connell October 16, 2013 at 3:13 pm

    I guess we have to stick with out own personal preferences, then. I’m against it. It feels like artificial human intrusion to me. And it feels like “cheating” to me, which I guess means taking the easy way out and avoiding the suffering of not ID’ing the creatures that birding regularly entails for me.

    Reply

  • Steve October 17, 2013 at 11:59 am

    I think this is more of a question with well known and frequently visited birding sites. As a test, I placed 1000 random birders across the state of Georgia, and assumed they were playing tapes that reached 1000 ft around them in a circle. I took that area and divided it by the land mass of Georgia. Birders were ‘impacting’ 113 square miles. Georgia is 57,919 square miles. If all birders were playing tapes at the same time, they would be affecting 0.2% of the land mass of Georgia. Even if we assumed that all the birds were affected at a popular birding site, we are not talking about population level effects.

    Sometimes I think we are too hard on ourselves. We need to focus our irritation on the feral cat lobby, the neighbors whose cats are killing birds directly, and on the people and politicians that couldn’t care less if 100 bird species went extinct tomorrow.

    for a good discussion of playback visit:
    http://www.sibleyguides.com/2011/04/the-proper-use-of-playback-in-birding/

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  • Bede A. October 24, 2013 at 5:45 am

    Steve,
    That calculation doesn’t make sense. It is not about the percentage of landmass being affected that we are talking here, It is the percentage of birds, for that probably the more rarer and therefore more vulnerable species that we are talking about. Taking the same statistics you mention, if there is a rare species that inhabit certain remote terrains in Georgia, say occupying 0.2% of Georgia, and if those birders each played within the 1000ft circle you mentions, which are the 0.2% where those rare species are living, it means it has 100% negative effect on those specific vulnerable species…
    So, that calculation has no meaning. Birders don’t play the calls of common species, as they can be easily seen without the recordings. They always play the rare, hard to spot, vulnerable species calls. If they get used to, not to respond to them any more, as one research shows, that can have a negative effect, as they could neglect the real calls too.

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  • Kelly Colgan Azar November 13, 2013 at 4:08 am

    The use of playback is not a question for science to determine, it is an ethical matter. Birds are naturally selected to act in their own best interests. If the bird isn’t displaying itself, it isn’t it its best interest to do so. The use of playback puts the interests of the recreational, competitive birder or the photographer, often one and the same, before the welfare of the bird. This is unethical.

    In addition, I would take it as a red flag and a matter of concern that any bird, naturally selected to respond to a call from another of its species, is no longer responding in the natural way due to the use of playback.

    I think there is far too much leniency in this matter by the birding/avian organizations. If birders don’t respect the rights of birds and love them enough to put their welfare before the birder’s trivial desire for a view or a photo, how can we expect others to care.

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