t the risk of throwing a stone at a hornet nest...

IF you use playback in the field, how do you govern your use of this technique so as not to over-stress the birds? I know many birders oppose the use of recordings, and I don't wish to get into a debate about whether it is good or bad. The intent of my question simply to learn from birders who use playback decide when, or for how long to use it. For the record, I use playback.

Roger Marlowe · Friends with Terry Colborn and 3 others
Like most things too much is a not good for the birds but if used wisely, and this is the key, using the recordings to learn songs so you become better in the field.
April 19 at 9:39pm · Unlike · 1

Bob Hirt I only use playback when it does more good than harm. Birdathons and non-breeding seasons for field yrips and CBC's
April 19 at 9:43pm · Unlike · 1

Matthew Dodder Roger, does that mean you don't recommend ANY playback to lure birds closer, but simply use the recordings for home study? Thanks for your input!
April 19 at 9:44pm · Like

Matthew Dodder Bob, the SCVAS birdathon is this week (for my team), smack dab in the middle of breeding season. Does that mean your recommendation would be NO playback? Thanks for your input!
April 19 at 9:45pm · Like

Bob Hirt I plan to use playback for a brief period of time until a response or for three or four plays. If no reply then it's done. Birdathons are in the more good than harm for me since most of my pledges are based on a pledge per species. It's fun to try for the "most species" honor but the purpose is raising money for wildlife education and conservation.
April 19 at 9:51pm · Unlike · 1

Liz Deluna Gordon If you go to a refuge it is out of bounds to play a tape to a clapper railt o show a bus load of kids...but a single hunter can kill 15 or what ever the bag limit is a day? What is more harmful?
April 19 at 9:55pm · Unlike · 4

Matthew Dodder Bob, That's solid advice. Thanks! My motivation is not the "most species" but "more species than we got last year" I totally agree about more good than harm. Again, very solid advice. thanks.
April 19 at 9:56pm · Like

Matthew Dodder LIz, that is a strange reality. Of course, I NEVER play endangered species (like our SF Clapper Rail), but the question of whether it is acceptable to play rare or breeding birds always arises... How does one decide and if you take the plunge and use playback, when will you know it's time to stop? I'm just looking for solid advice, because the issue arose recently on a field trip. BTW, has my membership expired?? Haven't received NAV yet, but I saw Jeff's photo with it. Eagerly awaiting!
April 19 at 10:02pm · Like

Lisa Myers Way back when only leaders played a few songs I did not give it much thought and I used recordings at time, but now that everyone under the sun can download the App and play bird songs, well, I now have to wonder what impact we were having. So I now play calls only on rare occasion. When it comes to numbers I decided I cannot complete with the teams that play calls, and I acknowledge that my end of day numbers reflect that. I also wonder if playing calls has taken some of the excitment & sport out of birding.
April 19 at 10:20pm · Like · 4

Terry Colborn I use my iPhone app judiciously in the field, and and very little during breeding season. I still prefer pishing and other imitated sounds to locate birds. Kevin Zimmer, with VENT, wrote a insightful article in Birding on this subject several years ago. His point was that as long as birders are NOT going to the same bush, one after another, seeking a particular bird, each playing a tape, than the likelihood of disturbance is pretty minimal. We just need to apply common sense.
April 19 at 11:13pm · Like · 2

Alvaro Jaramillo Matthew, some disjointed thoughts. Stress - what is this, how it it defined? You will find that almost all definitions will be very anthropomorphic. You can measure heart rates in ungulates, and adrenalin surging through their systems, but the interesting thing is that animals that have been studied bounce back from stress in a very different way than we do. Stress flares up and leaves, then they are right back to base level. We don't do that, stress builds in us, humans have a very difficult time being at some non-stress base level. We are not being chased by a lion, we have a deadline, yet our bodies freak out as if we were being chased by a lion. Due to our reality, we have a very warped idea of what stress is in an animal. So I avoid using the term stress when dealing with birds, as it is entirely a loaded tern.
April 19 at 11:27pm · Like · 4

Starlyn Howard · 29 mutual friends
I am largely an aural birder, using songs and calls to locate then see the birds, and mostly I use my app to confirm my identification, meaning I play it to my ear....pretty quiet.....out of breeding season, I occasionally use it to bring up a very stealthy bird.....besides, if a bird doesn't pop up pretty much right away, chances are it won't....so playing louder or over and over seems kind of unproductive for both.
April 19 at 11:29pm · Like

Alvaro Jaramillo Whoops, sent it off before it was done. What we can sense is a change in behavior, and often we want that change in behavior. We want the bird to come close, or to sing back to us. Is this really a stressor? I doubt it is. Some of us have wanted the Cornell Lab to do a study on the effect of playback on birds as there is nothing out there that deals with this. What data is out there suggests that breeding success is not noticeably affected by playback. What does happen in areas where playback is very common is that birds stop responding. They do not leave, they do not abandon nests, they ignore. Is this good? No, but is it as bad as our worst fears on the effects of playback? Probably not. Having said all that, playback is a skill that takes a lot of practice and experience to do it well. You really have to be paying attention to the bird, and essentially know its personality. How it behaves when being played to, what volume level to choose, how to tease it but not freak it out, where to look for it. Will it fly in, will it walk a circle around you, will it whisper sing? All of this stuff takes years to figure out. You can even drive birds away if you do playback incorrectly. What I worry about is not playback as much as badly done playback. Maybe we need to train birders in playback so they do it well and responsibly? Playback is an art form, experienced playback folks even have styles. Running "a tape" to use the old term is sort of like playing an instrument; there is a situation where you can feel like you and the bird are in this unique dance. A sort of clumsy communication that is truly a wonderful experience. Having said that, most birders do not treat playback with the care and respect it deserves. Finally an effect that is very annoying is hearing other people's playback. You want to go out there to hear birds, not playback. This seldom happens, but it is getting more and more likely as everyone gets out there and does it. I think we should not use playback when other birders who are not part of the group are around, or at least ask for permission.
April 19 at 11:41pm · Like · 10

Kathi Hutton · Friends with Julie Davis and 4 others
Alvaro said it great. My personal use is - one or two, at the most 3, hits of the bird song. If it doesn't come in or sing back, I quit. I don't broadcast random song, only what I already suspect to be there, and I never use Screech-owl as a general alarm. Why annoy every species when you only have one or two target birds you are after? I do pish fairly often and randomly, but because I am so bad at it, few birds respond. I think they are in the bushes, laughing at me. I use it mostly in spring migration, for marsh birds like rails and wrens, occasionally for owls,never breeding season, and never at heavily birded areas like the Magee Marsh boardwalk. If you can't see a warbler there, with 5000 eyes looking, you might as well go home.
April 20 at 3:50am · Like · 1

Joseph Morlan http://www.sibleyguides.com/2011/04/the-proper-use-of-playback-in-birding/

The Proper Use of Playback in Birding
‎[caption id="attachment_5246" align="alignright" width="217" caption="Swainson'...See More
April 20 at 4:00am · Like · 2 ·

Vivek Khanzode Great discussion indeed Matthew. I love what Alvaro said above. It is not easy to decide what is too much wrt to using the calls. The article by David Sibley linked to by Joe Morlan above is an excellent article which addresses this question quite appropriately and adequately. Thanks for posting the link to the article. I had read it last year when it came out.
April 20 at 4:26am · Like · 1

Phil Henderson · Friends with Keith Hansen
Hmmmm, birdathons ...is that like a Barry Bonds deal? Ceratainly records are not comprable.
April 20 at 7:27am · Like

Matthew Dodder All very thoughtful comments, thanks everyone.

Regarding "stress": As Alvaro pointed out, it is a very loaded term, and does imply more than I intended. The familiar arguments are that 1.) playback "distracts" a bird from normal behavior, i.e. feeding itself or its young, and 2.) playback "lures" a bird out of protective cover, within view of predators. I think we probably all agree that responding to playback is kind of a natural response—just as would be defending the birds territory from a real life rival. So saying that a "natural response" to an "artificial stimuli" causes "stress" is probably inaccurate.

As long as the rival behaves in a realistic fashion, not endlessly singing in other words, playback attempts to replicate a rather common situation for a bird. So because distraction and luring are two possible reactions to playback that I was lumping under the blanket term, "stress". Perhaps there is a better word, but this is what most folks begin a conversation with, and we need to start somewhere… My question should perhaps be rephrased, "how do we achieve results with responsible use of playback—results which do not place the bird at some kind of unnatural risk?"

Joe, I've ready Sibley's blog about playback and I think it's pretty sound advice. It's interesting how he successfully argues both pros and cons of playback. Very diplomatic. His guideline are good. Mostly, I'm interested in YOU and other people reading this thread. What are your personal rules for playback? That is, if you use the technique. What advice can you offer. Like you, I am a birding instructor, and my students would love to know how you and other tour leaders and birding instructors monitor their use of playback.

Terry, I vaguely recall Zimmer's article. I think he was leaning toward the idea that the "stress" concept was overstated, and inaccurate. I should dig it up again to make sure I've got his argument straight. I don't remember, for instance, how Kevin monitored his own use of playback. It's certainly good advice that multiple birders do not RE-tape or OVER-tape an area, but how are we to know when this is occurring? I guess what is needed is more specific guidelines for the individual. It's too abstract to say "as long as birders are not going to the same bush…" because it's not clear if it allows for one or two birders to go to that bush and each use a tape. How many is too many birders at that bush? Guidelines for the individual can't be stated in terms of the behavior of others.

Terry and Starlyn both cited their preference for pishing. I like that too, I just find my whistles and pishes unconvincing, and the birds seem to agree… Just for the sake of argument though, I wonder what the difference is between good imitations or icing, and playback? If one objects to playback but employs pishes or whistled imitations, is this somehow less "stressful" for the bird?

Lisa, I can't say my numbers have really improved by using playback, but I can say we get better looks than before. I've always emphasized song on field trips, so a N. Pygmy-Owl heard ends up on the list as much as a N. Pygmy-Owl seen. Regarding excitement and sport… I don't know about that, but I do know I carry more equipment than I did a 15 years ago.

As I mentioned, I use playback. I'm amazed at how well it works, but in the absence of specific, well-defined rules, I've come up with two:

1.) "let the bird win". I have always left a target bird calling. When I stop taping, and a bird continues to sing or call, that says to me that he believes he has driven the intruder away. I have let him win, and remained to see/hear him reclaim his domain. Unfortunately, this can only be judged "after the fact"? How can I ensure the bird will win?

2.) keep playback "natural". Male birds always have to face rivals, but those rivals have limits to their fight. I can see how taping for a longer time than a natural rival would fight could cause problems. It could seem like a super enemy, and one that the live bird had never encountered. It would not how how to deal with this enemy, and possibly cause more "stress" than an actual rival. Perhaps it would even provoke him to more risky behavior, like emerging from a hiding place... Seems like the most frequent recommendation for limiting playback is 3-5 recordings, long pauses, not more than 5 minutes total.

3.) Listen and watch for results. Be patient, as was the practice before playback came into common use.

Thanks everyone for contributing to this conversation. I hope people will continue to offer their thoughts on how best to use playback responsibly, respectfully, and effectively.
April 20 at 8:54am · Like · 2

Kathi Hutton · Friends with Julie Davis and 4 others
Matthew: I really like your three rules and, with your permission, will incorporate them into future discussions on this topic: Keep it natural, be patient, and let the bird win. Thanks for these great points
April 20 at 10:22am · Unlike · 1

Matthew Dodder Kathi, you are more than welcome.
April 20 at 10:26am · Like

Steven Tucker · Friends with Mike Bergin and 16 others
Hmm...I think there are numerous examples of stress, or something very akin to the human definition of it, occurring in birds. They certainly do not die in mist nets, or abandon perfectly good nests for no reason at all. Less resilient wild birds do not begin losing consciousness when being handled by humans because they enjoy it. Killdeer must be experiencing something negative to spur them to flop around on the ground when you walk by their nest. Alvaro is certainly correct in that birds can recover from stress better than we can (they have to live with predators hunting them every day, can you imagine that?), but I don't think people should casually assume to know the various pressures different species (and individuals) can handle before the birds head off to greener pastures. If anyone is looking to experiment with this, perhaps they should start with some European Starlings, heh.
April 24 at 5:58pm · Unlike · 1

Phil Henderson · Friends with Keith Hansen
Stress is clearly relative and subjective. Expense of energy happens.
April 24 at 9:02pm · Unlike · 1

Alvaro Jaramillo Steve - your stressing me out man! :-)
April 24 at 10:22pm · Unlike · 4

Matthew Dodder I talked a lot about this issue in class last night, and tried to present the issue in an objective fashion. The goal was not to decide whether taping was good or bad, because that issue is as hard to resolve as political differences.... but how to do it responsibly IF we are going to do it at all. I know I employ playback all the time, but I want to set a good example if possible, and make sure other birders after me will be able to view the desired birds in a natural state. Whether stress is an actual factor or not, I wish to make as small an impact as possible as a human, and yet, provide the best experience for my class. Very complicated situation.
April 24 at 10:31pm · Like

Liz Deluna Gordon Birds on the other hand would eat you if they could.
April 24 at 10:34pm · Unlike · 2


Just in time! ABA publishes Part 1 of a four-part series on subspecies by Steve Howell. Well worth a read!

Click here.


Our quest to see the all the California races of Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) was enriched recently with encounters with M.m.maillardi (Modesto Song Sparrow) at White Slough, and M.m.samuelis (Samuel's Song Sparrow) of San Pablo Bay. Suisun Bay Song, Alameda Song, and the widespread M.m.gouldii have been in the bag for a while. Remaining? Oh, just a few...