Following are guidelines regarding the ethics of using recordings to attract wild birds.

American Birding Association (ABA) guidelines

"To avoid stressing birds or exposing them to danger, exercise restraint and caution during observation, photography, sound recording, or filming. LIMIT THE USE OF RECORDINGS [emphasis mine] 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."

Everyone has to decide for themselves what "limit" the use of recordings means. Ken Kaufmann recommends no more than five minutes of playback; others may be comfortable using playback for 30 minutes. However, in my field classes, I do not allow the use of recordings to attract birds for two reasons: to minimize any potential stress on the bird, and to keep the group focused on hearing the actual birds, not a facsimile. I do find them useful to verify a species that you may have heard, at low volume or with earbuds, for yourself.

The "and other methods" the ABA refers to includes such things as:

  1. pishing, making a "pish-pish-pish" sound with your mouth;
  2. whistling, especially the repetitive notes of Pygmy or Saw-whet Owls;
  3. clapping your hands together to imitate rails.

When I was about eight, I received a bird call for Christmas. It was a small wooden cylinder with a metal piece that fit inside. By turning the handle on the metal piece slowly against the wood, it made a very squeaky sound. I had great fun with it at the time, though I don't ever remember attracting a bird with it. I mainly drove my brothers and parents crazy with the sound. Later, I learned about pishing, and tried it out, sometimes with great success. I never really thought about the effect it was having on the birds, however. I was mainly interested in seeing them, or getting them to come closer to me.

There is a story about people playing tapes of the Coppery-tailed (now Elegant) Trogon in southeast Arizona years ago, trying to lure this unusual species in close enough to identify them. Getting closer and closer to the calling bird, one group finally realized that it was another group with their recorder, playing the same song. The real Trogons were nowhere to be found. I have since heard that due to people playing the calls so many times, and the exact same calls (since everyone had the same recording), the Trogons became very quiet. They didn't leave, but they were clearly affected by the recordings being played so many times in their home.

That's the point that is important to me - it's their home. We are out enjoying nature, usually far from our houses, and influencing birds right in their own "living rooms" with calls. At the very least, it is distracting to them. They expend energy trying to figure out what the source of the sound is, energy they should be putting into staying healthy, finding a mate, and raising young.

Of course, one could argue that one person playing a recording for a few minutes is not going to make much difference. One concern I have is the cumulative effect - how many people are doing this? With the ubiquity of smartphones and apps available now, it is becoming ever easier to play recordings in the field. Another concern is whether or not a bird is in the middle of nesting and raising young. The extra stress involved with responding to our calls may influence their nesting success. We all love to see birds up close, but there are other ways to do that without disturbing them. If you are interested in minimizing your impact, read What the Robin Knows, by Jon Young. He gives an in-depth explanation of how we affect birds and all animals, with instructions for a different approach to birding.


Yellow-headed Blackbird

The Grackles are here and that is quite clear. The morning is ringing, - not with their singing, But with their talking, they're piping and squawking Some scandalous ditty, the more then's the pity. The Grackles are here, that's plain to your ear…

–Clarence Hawkes

[If you have heard the Yellow-headed Blackbirds sing, you might agree that this poem applies to them as well]


Website and photographs 2013 by Gordon Beebe