In the past few months, I’ve mentioned some topics that inevitably spawn good-natured debate among birders. Is 8x or 10x magnification for binoculars a better choice? Are photographic or painted field guides more useful?
We’ll debate those topics ad nauseum if allowed to, but it never comes to blows. If you want to start a truly contentious argument (which I don’t, but I’m treading there anyway), bring up the topic of using recorded birdsong to attract birds.
To Pish, Or Not To Pish?
Let’s define some terms first.
There are several methods of using sound in an attempt to draw birds into better view. One tried and true trick is called “pishing,” a reference to the sound a birder makes when doing it. Variations on the theme of making a “pssssh” sound mimic the alarm call of mobbing birds like chickadees, bringing birds into the open to see what the fuss is about. For the birder more skilled with his or her vocal chords, mimicking the actual song of a targeted bird can produce a dramatic effect. In the digital age when everyone has an MP3 player in a pocket, playing a recording of a bird’s song is perhaps the pinnacle of using sound to bring in birds. This is generally called “playback.”
While the results of pishing and playback are similar, it’s important to distinguish the reason each works. (Saying it works isn’t an endorsement of its use…bear with me.)
I’ve heard pishing being likened to someone pounding on your door and telling you there’s some commotion in your driveway you should see. Playback, on the other hand, is someone pounding on your door threatening to steal your wife and burn your house down. When a male bird singing on his territory hears another male of his species sing, he knows a rival is on his territory, threatening his reproductive success. In other words, someone wants to ruin everything! At the risk of anthropomorphizing the birds, you can see how both approaches would get your attention, while the latter would get your stress level up quite a bit more.
Therein lies one of the principle arguments against the use of playback. Both the American Birding Association (ABA) Code of Ethics and the regulations of the National Park Service disallow the harassment of wildlife. Prancing off-trail to whack a shrub with a stick to get a nesting sparrow to fly into view is clearly prohibited by both organizations. Playback, however, is not.
The ABA states the following in section 1(b) of the code of ethics: “Limit the use of recordings and other methods of attracting birds, and never use such methods in heavily birded areas, or for attracting any species that is Threatened, Endangered, or of Special Concern, or is rare in your local area.”
Checking into the NPS policy on generating sound, we find that audio devices should not be played that are louder than 60 decibels at 50 feet. That’s roughly the sound level of a normal conversation from a few feet away. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has similar language that specifically mentions audio playback devices, but prohibits their use only in a manner so as to “cause unreasonable disturbance to others in the vicinity.”
So, while individual parks may have specific regulations, the quiet use of playback to bring a bird out of the trees isn’t necessarily a violation of ABA or NPS policy. Unless, that is, you consider it harassment. And most national parks (not to mention state parks and National Wildlife Refuges) do indeed regard playback as harassment of wildlife, thereby prohibiting it. It’s a gray area that the parks tend to make clearly black-and-white with statements like this one found on Yosemite National Park’s website: “Do not use any audio or mechanical device to attract birds and other wildlife…”
Are National Parks A Good Place To Pish?
Interestingly, it seems the parks tend to view pishing as acceptable. That begs the question of whether a human clearly mimicking a bird song would be construed as harassment. I have no knowledge of this being addressed by any park. It should be clear, however, that when dealing with a threatened or endangered bird, no manner of behavior that intentionally alters the bird’s behavior would be tolerated by the parks, nor fellow birders.
So, to make a blanket statement, you should not use playback in any national park and use pishing judiciously, avoiding heavily birded areas or targeting rare birds.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have used playback once in a national park. Having thought I heard a distant Rock Wren out the car window in Theodore Roosevelt National Park last month, I stopped and listened, but heard nothing. I played two “bars” of Rock Wren song and immediately heard a response, confirming a Rock Wren was somewhere on the slope.
I never did see the bird and didn’t play the song continuously in an effort to anger it into showing itself more closely. I certainly don’t believe that action constituted harassment of wildlife or I wouldn’t have done it. I also don’t see any specific language in any literature from Theodore Roosevelt stating that action is prohibited.
I do know that Valerie Naylor, the superintendent, is at least a casual birder as she’s reported an interesting sighting or two to the North Dakota birders listserv. Thus, I may receive a public flogging for this mea culpa, and rightly so. I confirmed Rock Wrens in that area, which is useful data, posted to eBird, but it would be hubris to believe hearing that bird served any significant greater good that would make potentially violating park policy a good idea.
When not on land where it is otherwise prohibited, I do use playback, but not often. I never play it indiscriminately, focusing instead on specific birds that I know are very close-at-hand. I don’t play it for long periods of time. A few seconds at a time, once or twice is pretty much my limit. I always ask if other birders nearby are comfortable with my using playback. If anyone shows the slightest distaste for it, it doesn’t get used. And all of that happens only after exhausting all the other tricks in my birder skill set to make a bird visible for myself or others.
Do Birds Suffer From Pishing Or Recording Playback?
Very few studies have been conducted on the effect of played bird song on bird health and behavior. Those that have been published don’t show concrete results that would hold up to much scrutiny supporting either side of the debate.
On national Forest Service land in Michigan recently, some people hung speakers from trees and played the song of a Connecticut Warbler for long periods of time in an effort to draw out the birds and photograph them. Connecticut Warblers are very uncommon as nesting birds in Michigan, and this happened at one of the few nesting locations that is openly talked about. Most other efforts are kept quiet to prevent exactly this sort of thing from happening.
In an excellent example of self-policing, birders got into quite an uproar about this behavior with the U.S. Forest Service ultimately letting it be known they would patrol the area and not tolerate playback. It’s clear that when some people can’t or won’t exercise restraint and good judgment, rules must be made that potentially impact the enjoyment of other hobbyists.
I’m curious to hear from the birders that follow the Traveler. Do you use playback yourself? Do you think it’s cheating and sloppy birding? Too harmful to the birds? Have you ever called in a bird in a national park by one method or another? If so, do you think you were harassing wildlife?