Sound Ethical Birding: Comments from Scientists

Updated: Jun 27, 2021


2 June 2021


Spring Bird Notes: Starting the weekend of June 19-20 and continuing through the end of July, there will ONLY be Sunday morning (and NO SATURDAY) bird walks in Central Park. Starting in August we will go "full-time" again on Fridays through Mondays as the fall (southbound) migration begins - and yes there can be many migrants in NYC Parks starting in August! The next issue of the Newsletter will be on 23 June or perhaps 30 June! See the SCHEDULE page of this web site for the most up-to-date info for bird walks and locations/times.


Birders have always used sound to bring birds into view - whether it was "pishing", squeaking sounds, whistling etc. Sound has almost been as important to bringing birds into view as is more recent technology such as good binoculars to see them. In NYC, sound has been used by bird walk leaders including Starr Saphir who used "pishing" to bring birds into view on her Central Park/NYC bird walks. Ask Joe Giunta (who still leads walks for NYC Audubon) for how many years he used sound recordings and a loud speaker to bring birds into better view on his bird walks on LI, or on breeding bird areas north of NYC. In the last decade a wonderful technology change happened: the equipment used is now much smaller/cheaper; the quality of the sound much better; and access to all sorts of bird calls easy and available to anyone with an internet connection. The future will only bring more technological innovations, and the wise birder will learn what works best for him/her. Young birders are growing up using the new technology as a matter of course. How to use the new technology in the best ethical manner? Deborah and I have a lot of information and experience to share with those willing to listen.


What NYC birder has not traveled to a lodge in South America where the guides often use sound to bring in birds? What NYC Birder has not been on a pelagic birding trip where guides use "offal" (a smelly oily concoction) to bring in all sorts of petrels, albatrosses and others, some from miles away, to get a better look at them? By the way, in the offal concoction there is hardly anything edible - it just smells "good" to seabirds. Similarly who has fed birds by hand in Central Park? That human activity changes birds' behavior...and increases the number of "problem" birds (starlings, house sparrows) affecting native nesting birds. Our point here is that people change/affect birds behavior all the time for a variety of reasons. As an aside if you take the National Audubon field course on birds at Hog Island, Maine - there the PhD teachers use sound to bring in NESTING warblers [the males] while at the same time waving dummy [stuffed] males of the same species to the resident males. The teachers do this to show birders that adult male warblers are aggressive...tough...territorial...and it is fun to watch how territorial are the resident males. And, since the rival male is vanquished and stops singing (indeed disappears altogether), the local male Blackburnian or Black-throated Green wins! Life goes on...


On our walks we are primarily interested in migrant birds...and we don't often use territorial calls to bring conspecifics to us for a better look. The "Tchway Call" is one that can sometimes (but not always) work quite well to bring in a variety of warblers, flycatchers, orioles...And via trial and error through the years, we've discovered several other click/chip calls that birds choose to come in close to. Why? We don't know...perhaps birds are curious about sounds? Interestingly when we try these same calls in our field research in Asia, birds don't respond there. And the calls we use in Central Park via a small hand-held speaker don't always work! A lot depends upon the time of the day; weather (hot/sunny is not good); and how many other birds come in. Birds, like people, are social: if five birds start to come in, they will be joined by a lot more...In other words, birds certainly make choices based upon their physical condition, interest etc. They know best what is best for them. If birds are so bothered/troubled by the sounds we use, why do they fly/come TO the sound and not flee in the opposite direction?


On a good day in April-May-early June, and again on southbound migration from mid-July though November, if we start playing the calls in the right area (structure of the vegetation is an important factor if we want to get birds a few feet from the group), we can bring in somewhere between 10 to 50 birds of several species. I often point out to people how these birds continue to look for/find food (we watch them eating caterpillars eg); and we have also seen birds start preening. Are those the behaviors of stressed-out birds? I like to say that by using sound to bring birds in to us, instead of doing whatever these birds were doing 100 feet from us, they do it ten feet away instead. Individual birds stay with us from 15 seconds to 2 minutes...and sometimes almost as quickly as the "loose assemblage" [flock] appears, it is gone...drifting back into the woods. In the meantime, people have had a magical experience. It sure beats looking at small dots at the tops of trees. If you want to make bird watchers out of every household in NYC/the world, just do this: Have fun with birds...and get birds into view so people can actually see them - put down their binoculars and get nice long looks. We've also learned that people very much enjoy watching the interaction between the sound we use and the birds we are trying to bring in. People can indeed "talk" to birds, and birds respond..sometimes by calling back (Cuckoos), or just coming closer and closer - like the birds want a better look at us (the source of the sound). Birds are curious entities too...


For those folks who believe I am harming birds in some way ("they've flown thousands of miles and need to conserve all the energy they can"), please show me some scientific evidence that using sound in a stopover park (Central Park) harms migrant birds. In the last 10-15 years I've searched the scientific literature - I sure can't find anything...Yes if I put a speaker next to a nest and play calls for 24 hrs a day, I can get the adults to abandon a nest...but who does that? Again, we work primarily with migrant birds who are not going to nest in Central Park. But, no need to believe us, or what is written here based upon our experience leading bird walks in Central Park (and NYC) since the early 1990s...or doing research/publishing on NYC birds (since the late 1980s). Rather:


In this week's "Historical" Notes, we send three comments about using sound to attract birds written by "real" scientists - two from Cornell. In (a) John Fitzpatrick Director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology writes: "I am in complete agreement that every step we can take to “turn people on” to birds and birding is a vital one, and I am in the camp with those who defend pishing and playbacks as doing more good than harm. Heck, after all the bird always wins, right?" In (b) John Confer of Ithaca College who works with the rare Golden-winged Warbler says this: "I DO NOT RECALL ANY BIRD THAT ABANDONED ITS NEST, LOST A MATE OF AN ESTABLISHED PAIR, OR DESERTED A TERRITORY OUT OF A THOUSAND ATTEMPTS TO CATCH AND BAND A BIRD USING AUDIO PLAYBACK." The all caps use is his from his original email (see below). And finally, (c) Ken Rosenberg of Cornell: "Bottom line is that the scientific evidence (sparse as it is) does not support the often strongly negative views that some birders have towards the use of playback to lure birds into view or get them to pose for photographs." and: "Certainly compared with virtually every other form of anthropogenic disturbance or threat to habitats that birds face everywhere and all the time, the use of playback by birders, from a conservation perspective, is simply a non-issue."


If someone has alternate evidence, would you please send it.


Red-winged Blackbird (male) in Central Park on 21 May 2021 by Deborah Allen

(below) Blackpoll Warbler in Central Park on 23 May 2021 by Deborah Allen

Bird Walks for early June to mid-June 2021

All Walks @ $10/person

Directions to All Meeting Locations can be found here


1. Friday, 4 June at 8:30am. Bird Walk. Conservatory Garden; 105th street and 5th Avenue (uptown!) $10. Last Friday Bird Walk until August. Directions to All Meeting Locations can be found here


3. Saturday, 5 June at 7:30am and again at 9:30am. Bird Walk. Boathouse Cafe; 74th street/East Drive $10. If you do the 7:30am walk, you get the 9:30am walk for free.


4. Sunday, 6 June at 7:30am and again at 9:30am. Bird Walk. Boathouse Cafe; 74th street/East Drive $10. If you do the 7:30am walk, you get the 9:30am walk for free.


5. Monday, 7 June at 8:30am [MEMORIAL DAY]. Bird Walk. Strawberry Fields (IMAGINE MOSAIC) at 72nd st. and Central Park West (inside the park) $10. Last Monday Bird Walk until August. Directions to All Meeting Locations can be found here


3. Saturday, 12 June at 7:30am and again at 9:30am. Bird Walk. Boathouse Cafe; 74th street/East Drive $10. If you do the 7:30am walk, you get the 9:30am walk for free.


4. Sunday, 13 June at 7:30am and again at 9:30am. Bird Walk. Boathouse Cafe; 74th street/East Drive $10. If you do the 7:30am walk, you get the 9:30am walk for free.


x. Saturday, 19 June. NO BIRD WALK!!!!


5. Sunday, 20 June at 7:30am and again at 9:30am. Bird Walk. Boathouse Cafe; 74th street/East Drive $10. If you do the 7:30am walk, you get the 9:30am walk for free.


Call (718-828-8262) or Email us with questions: rdcny@earthlink.net

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The fine print: Our walks on weekends meet at 7:30/9:30am at the Boathouse Restaurant (approx. 74th street and the East Drive). Please note: the Boathouse is not one of the buildings that surround the nearby Model Boat Pond - people make this mistake all the time! Fridays we meet at Conservatory Garden; Mondays at Strawberry Fields - check the "Meeting Points" page of this web site for exact meeting location.


Our home phone is 718-828-8262...and Deborah's cell is: 347-703-5554. Email is (rdcny@earthlink.net). If you are lost and trying to get to the bird walk, call Deborah's cell phone...but remember on weekends there will be 2-3 other people calling who are also lost - please be patient. If in doubt about whether a walk will take place or not the morning of the walk: check the main landing page of this web site as well as the "Schedule" page - if the walk is cancelled, information will be posted there by 6am the day of the walk, and usually by 11pm the night before. If still confused and as a last resort, call us at home - if no one answers it means we left for the bird walk. We end all our Central Park walks (except Fridays) near the Boathouse at about noon; you can get a cup of coffee and a muffin there (around $6 total) - though the Boathouse is closed right now and will re-open in April 2021 according to the owners. Walks last about 3 hrs (less if hot or rainy), and you can leave at anytime - we won't be offended. If you need directions/help to your next destination, just ask someone on the walk - we aim to please.


Wilson's Warbler (first spring male) at the west side of the Pool at 105th st in Central Park Deborah Allen

Here is what we saw last week (brief highlights):


Thursday, 27 May (Dock on Turtle Pond at 8:30am): it was impossible to ignore the incessant singing of the second year (green with black throat) male Orchard Oriole at Turtle Pond. This male stayed hidden because if it showed itself, male Baltimore Orioles came in for the attack. Calls from the tape brought in a close male Gadwall (female nearby)...and on the walk the best place for bringing birds close to us was Warbler Rock, and a close second was the Honey-locust tree above the Humming Tombstone. 10 warbler species today.


Deborah's List of Birds for Thursday, 27 May: Click Here

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Friday, 28 May (Conservatory Garden at 105th st. at 8:30am): today was the prelude to two days of washout deluge. On the Island in the Meer was a singing second year male Orchard Oriole - males and females of this species seem to be common in the parks we are visiting this spring - a big change from 25 years ago. The best bird of the day (photo above) was a first spring male Wilson's Warbler that will get more black on its head by this autumn. Overall 15 warbler species today including Canada and Bay-breasted.


Deborah's List of Birds for Friday, 28 May: Click Here

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Saturday, 29 May (Boathouse Restaurant at 7:30am/9:30am): RAIN! No Bird Walk

Deborah's List of Birds for Saturday, 29 May: RAIN! No Bird Walk

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Sunday, 30 May (Boathouse Restaurant at 7:30am/9:30am): RAIN! No Bird Walk

Deborah's List of Birds for Sunday, 30 May: RAIN! No Bird Walk

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Monday, 31 May (Strawberry Fields [Imagine Mosaic] at 72nd street and Central Park West at 8:30am): We've turned a corner on spring 2021 and there is no going back. All we can do is look forward to the return of the birds in August. Today, 12 warbler species including two Mourning Warblers (one male one female, but both before the walk). Other highlights included lots of Red-eyed Vireos and a surprising number of Baltimore Orioles as well.


Deborah's List of Birds for Monday, 31 May: Click Here


Great Crested Flycatcher 28 May 2021 in Central Park Deborah Allen

HISTORICAL NOTEs


From: "John W. Fitzpatrick"

Subject: RE: Missing birds

Date: Oct 4, 2019


Hello Robert –


I greatly appreciate your email. I am in complete agreement that every step we can take to “turn people on” to birds and birding is a vital one, and I am in the camp with those who defend pishing and playbacks as doing more good than harm. Heck, after all the bird always wins, right? I’ll forward your message to my friends at the ABA.


Finally, thank you very much for your generous support of the Lab. We’re doing all we can to wake up the masses and add voices to the choir.


Cheers,


John