Bird Recording Ethics - Good or Bad?

Should Bird Calls Be Used in the Field?

Common Yellowthroat Singing

Andy Morffew / Flickr / CC by 2.0

Using recorded bird calls in the field is a controversial topic among birders, ornithologists, and conservationists, but is it really harmful to the birds? Understanding the effects of using recordings can help each birder choose how to use or not use sounds in an ethical and responsible way.

Why Use Bird Call Recordings?

Using bird call recordings from a phone, mp3 player, or another device can be tempting, and there are many reasons birders might choose to attract birds with recorded songs and calls. Playing a recording can lure a shy bird out into the open for a better view, proper identification, or photo opportunity. Recordings of different calls can even confirm whether hidden birds are in the area, or may coax birds into interesting behaviors, such as raising a crest or assuming a dominant or aggressive posture. But is using a recording to lure a bird unethical?

How Recordings Can Harm Birds

When a bird hears a recording, it cannot tell that the sound is recorded. Because many birds use songs to claim territory, hearing another song may make the bird believe its territory has been invaded by a competitor, and it will seek out that competitor to challenge it. When a bird responds to a recording, it is no longer foraging, caring for eggs or chicks, preening, resting, or otherwise doing the activities it needs to survive. Instead, the agitated bird is now chasing a fake bird.

Constantly chasing competitors stresses a bird, and unlimited recording use can dramatically impact its well-being. While no studies have yet proven conclusively how much harm recordings do to birds, some results have shown that males may lose dominance in the eyes of their mates because of recordings, which can impact whether those birds can breed successfully. Without more proof of ongoing harm to birds, however, the ethics of bird calls to attract birds remains controversial.

Guidelines for Using Bird Recordings

Different birders have different opinions about whether or not using bird recordings is appropriate, but responsible use always follows certain ethical guidelines.

  • Limit Use: If you do choose to use bird recordings in the field, the time you use them should be very limited, with only 2-3 tries over a period of a few minutes. If there is no response, move on and leave nearby birds in peace. Recordings should never be played continuously or repeated frequently.
  • Obey Local Restrictions: National wildlife refuges prohibit the use of recordings of any type, and other bird refuges or nature preserves may have similar restrictions. Some areas also change restrictions based on the season, such as not permitting recordings during the bird breeding season. If you are unsure whether or not recordings are allowed, ask before hitting the "play" button.
  • Keep Quiet for Uncommon Birds: Endangered or threatened birds, rare vagrants, or otherwise uncommon birds are already under stress from many factors. No recordings should be used near these birds at any time so they can thrive as much as possible.
  • Group Permission: If you are birding in a group, ask the other birders if anyone minds the use of recordings. Consent should be unanimous or recordings should be avoided. If the group does want to use recordings, only one person should play them, as different speakers may have subtly different sounds and could seem like more than one invading competitor. Similarly, anyone with a bird call as a ringtone should be sure their phone is turned off in the field to avoid accidental recording use.
  • Play Carefully: If you use recordings, play them carefully and responsibly. Only play a bird's song in a habitat where you believe the bird to be, and keep the volume low so the invading bird does not seem overly aggressive or powerful.
  • Be Patient: Birds have excellent hearing and can hear recorded calls from quite a distance, and birders should be patient when waiting for a response. It may take several minutes after the recording is played for a bird to arrive in the area and respond to the challenge, and careful waiting can be rewarding.

What About Pishing?

Advocates of bird recordings may compare recorded songs and sounds to pishing with the idea that both disturb birds, so if you're going to do one there should be no problem doing the other. Just like with the use of recordings, opinions on pishing are divided, and some birders prefer neither method as both can stress the birds. At the same time, however, birds' sensitive hearing can easily distinguish the rough tones of pishing as not being a real bird, though they may still investigate it. A recording, however, can be so very close to a real call that the birds may become frantic trying to find the intruder. When in doubt, pishing should also be used ethically, and both pishing and bird recordings should be minimized.

Using bird recordings can help birders get better views of birds even while they familiarize themselves with calls for birding by ear, but this controversial tactic may still be harmful to birds. Understanding the possible effects of birdsong recordings can help all birders make the best choices to balance their desire to see birds and making sure the birds are not harmed.