Ask the Experts: #8

Do bird song playback devices do any harm? Let’s ask our experts.

From SVBC member Elizabeth Van Pelt from Devon PA:

Hello San Vito Bird Club Experts!

As a long-time birder and believer in ‘going with guides’, I find myself more and more uncomfortable with too much guide-generated playback to attract birds’ attention and get them closer to the group. It seems to me this practice forces birds to use energy to check the source of the calls/songs, fight off ‘intruders’ and otherwise engage in extra, unnecessary behaviors. How do you, as professional guides, suggest I handle this?

Pepe Castiblanco: Co-owner and proprietor of Casa Botania B&B and professional birding and nature guide. https://www.casabotania.com/en-gb

Playback has always been a topic of division between both bird guides and birders. On one hand we have the birder that travels thousands of kilometers to see as much as possible in two weeks and on the other hand you have the guide that wants you to be happy and satisfied with his/her sightings. However, there is an ethical paradox because most of your success as a guide for that particular customer or in general as a guide that wants to give a good tour, will depend on playback in order to produce and materialize as many and as exciting bird species as possible.What I do in that regard is to evaluate the situation and know my birds. If someone asks me to find a Bran-coloured Flycatcher in January, is very likely that I will wait to hear the call and walk in that direction instead of playing it back since I know that they are nesting and I won’t under any circumstances, do it myself or allow anybody in my group to do it cause I have the moral authority and the ethical obligation to do so. When a bird is not in a nesting season and I’m playing it back and it doesn’t react after hearing the first couple of calls, it’s also a very clear sign that it’s not interested and I won’t play it any longer. So there are some times when we don’t use it:Nesting, feeding and mating season,and when we don’t have a reaction from the bird. For the rest, I could play it a couple of times for the bird to come out from behind a tree and move a couple of feet to the side so we can see it. If it stays long enough for the picture, that’s a bonus but seeing it should be enough.

Omar Sidebe: Turacao Tours owner and guide, Loango National Park, Gabon (Africa)

Oh my goodness, as to the use of bird song playback devices it is a question of degree. Just as with ice cream bars…to much is not good but once in a while is most pleasant.

Birds are quite robust and generally not the frail creatures some think. Birds are perfectly capable of handling a bit of added stress now and again; it may even strengthen and embolden them. Playback devices do, indeed, cause them added stress. But we must also remember, stress that comes when these same birds see a group of massive upright bipedal primates walking through their neighborhoods…’pishing and pishing and pishing’.

Playback devices? Limit the frequency and duration of the playback; the birds will be fine. And limit your ice cream bar intake too!

David Rodriguez Arias: Tropical Biologist and natural history guide in Monteverde, Costa Rica. https://www.facebook.com/david.rodriguezarias

As guides, this is one of the most interesting and important aspects that we have to deal with. Using playback to attract birds works most of the time. Nevertheless, those aspects you are concerned about, in terms of what we are really doing to the birds, is still unknown. Based on my experience, using playback to attract one specific species is sometimes the best tool I can use. There are customers who really like birds and like to get at least a glimpse of one target, but in some situations these people cannot go right into the place where the bird is found. I think at times it is better to attract the bird to us, instead of going deep into the bushes with the risk of being bitten by a venomous snake. I know people who say: “You don’t need to do that, go and look for some other species.” But we all (as birders) know the joy we have when we can find that nemesis we have been chasing forever.

I have to be very clear about this, because I know there are always people who just want to find a bird, no matter the way. Those guides/customers are the ones who sometimes show less respect for Nature. Nowadays there are different ways to use a song or a call of a bird, so my recommendation is if you want to use them, remember we don’t know exactly how the playback is affecting the species we want to attract, so be careful to use playback for short periods of time and not close to the nesting areas. And always keep in mind that no matter how careful you are, you are still affecting the routine of the species you would like to find.

(Black-chested Jay responding to a playback recording; courtesy of Helen LeVasseur)