Sound Ethical Birding: Comments from Scientists
Updated: Jun 26, 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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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 (email@example.com). 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
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
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
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
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
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.
John W. Fitzpatrick
Director, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Olive-sided Flycatcher on 22 May 2021 in Central Park Deborah Allen
From: John Confer
Sent: Monday, May 12, 2014
Subject: playback tapes
Steve raised a concern about the use of audio playback for personal gain, not related to scientific study. I think it is important to think of the consequences of our activities on wildlife, and I appreciate Steve raising this concern.
I did 34 years of field study of Golden-winged Warblers, more than half of it requiring the capture and banding of birds with individual markers, without which the research data could not have been obtained. I have probably had more hours of field experience, probably hundreds of hours, using playing audio calls to attract birds into nets than anyone in this community. I intensively played audios back to catch some individual males. I was willing to accept some bird fatality to obtain the data that can be used for the conservation of the entire species. That seemed a fair trade. I do recall 3 or 4 nests where nest checking caused mortality. I do recall banding that caused perhaps two fatalities. 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. My work involved relating nesting success to environmental factors and I did everything reasonable to reduce the chances that my activities would harm the birds...
Blackpoll Warbler in Central Park on 28 May 2021 by Deborah Allen
This posting is from the Director of Conservation Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a bigwig at (and founder of) Partners in Flight and Linnaean's Eisenmann medalist a few years ago. From: Kenneth Victor Rosenberg PhD Cc: CAYUGABIRDS-L <CAYUGABIRDS-L@list.cornell.edu> Sent: Monday, April 9, 2012
Subject: Re: (playback) Have birding ethics changed?
Although this discussion has gone on for awhile and is in danger of getting too heated for this List, I feel compelled to jump in. I want to thank those who brought scientific experience and reasoning to the debate, and especially to Lee Ann for the links to deeper discussion and actual studies on this topic. 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. As with most ethical questions, then, this issue comes down to people's personal opinions and choices. So here is my (hopefully somewhat professional and reasoned) personal opinion:
I have been a professional ornithologist for 35 years and have spent much of the past 15 years trying to help conserve threatened and declining bird populations; I am also a lifelong birder, bird-tour leader and teacher. I have used playback in a wide variety of situations ranging from scientific protocols to purely recreational -- I frequently use an owl-mobbing playback during birding, in order to get a more thorough count of the species in a given area.
I am not aware of any situation in which a population of birds was adversely affected by use of playback by birders or researchers. Even in the most famous and hotly debated cases (Arizona trogons) no effects on nesting success could be shown, and after 40+ years of using playback and imitating calls (the same thing really) in many Arizona canyons, none of the highly sought species have disappeared from those areas -- in fact most have expanded their distribution and populations in the general region. I know of many, many cases where bird tour leaders at tropical locations return year after year to the same "rare" bird territories, using playback successfully to show these amazing birds to successive groups of people. The primary negative effect of "excessive" use of playback (certainly a subjective term) is that the birds quickly habituate to the sound and stop responding -- very often a bird continues to sing on its territory but simply does not respond to the playback (guides use the expression "taped out" to describe such birds). Even around here I have found that chickadees will not respond to the owl-mobbing playback if I go to the same area within a short time frame. In my experience the adverse effects of excessive playback is mostly on the birders and not on the birds. In certain locations, such as the tropical lodge discussed in the posts at Lee Ann's link, or South Fork of Cave Creek Canyon, guidelines for regulating use of playback (but not banning) might be necessary -- but again, mostly to preserve the experiences of other birders.
I think the ABA Code of Birder Ethics has this issue well covered, and Sibley's guidelines are very sensible and even offer tips for improving the effectiveness of playback while birding. And John Confer -- among the most cautious and respectful bird people I have known -- summarized well the biological perspective that even regular (daily) use of playback, even during the breeding season (not to mention the subsequent capture, handling, and blood-sampling of individual birds), had minimal if any effect on breeding success or population status. 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 one's personal birding ethics do not include playback or pishing because of the perceived temporary stress to individual birds, that is fine, but please don't question the integrity of other birders or SFO leaders that choose to use these tools to enhance the birding experience.
Conservation Science Program
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Deborah Allen and Robert DeCandido PhD
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59th Street Pond (Central Park) in Black-and-White Infra-red
16 May 2010 by Robert DeCandido
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