Birdwatchers' Digital Trickery is Pissing Birds Off

Photo: Alan Vernon / cc

Usually, birdwatching requires patience, dedication, and stealth for chance to glimpse some of nature's coyest creatures -- but the luxuries of the digital era have caught up with this age old pastime, and birds are none too pleased about it. Instead of simply waiting with binoculars in hand for birds to show, many birders have begun playing birdsongs on their smartphones in an attempt to lure the animals out into the open. Some naturalists are concerned, however, that the trickery might be bad for birds -- and that getting duped is actually making them very angry.With thousands of bird songs and calls well-cataloged on the internet and available through smartphone apps, it was only a matter of time before animal-loving birdwatchers gave up their lie-and-wait methods for something a bit more deceptive. According to a report from The Seattle Times, many birders have begun blasting digitized birdsongs in an effort to draw out the real thing.

While it may seem harmless enough to employ a little trickery, some experts warn that growing practice may come at the detriment of very birds so beloved by birdwatchers. It turns out that some birds don't particularly care for the idea that another potential rival may be crooning on their turf.

From the Times:

UW professor emeritus John Wingfield found testosterone levels increased up to tenfold in male song sparrows confronted with taped songs. They remained revved up for one to two days. "These males will continue to spontaneously sing and patrol their territory," Wingfield said. "They get very aggressive and attack other birds." And they were distracted from parental duties, such as feeding chicks.

In addition to getting a bit irked by the birdwatchers' funny-business, such recorded playbacks can even cause birds to lower their guards for a peek at the digitized commotion, opening themselves up for attacks from opportunistic predators.

Seattle-based wildlife recording expert Martyn Stewart told the Times that she is "dead set against" the practice of playing birdsongs to draw out birds -- he knows firsthand what can happen, and it ain't pretty.

"I've seen woodpeckers respond to playback from birders ... and a sharp-shinned hawk comes and takes that bird out."

Despite suggestions that playing back birdsongs could be bothering birds, birdwatching enthusiasts say that the technique is just part of the modernizing of the pastime, and that it's here to stay. Some have argued that luring birds out into the open in such a way could actually have less of an impact than traditional methods that often involve trespassing into a bird's territory to catch a glimpse.

But perhaps what's worse than birds having their feathers ruffled over a little chicanery is the fact that using digitized birdsongs may actually moving birders further from the spirit of nature their hoping to commune with.

"It has gotten much more common," says Dr. Jack Stephens, who presides over the Washington Ornithological Society. "Now, you see people get out of a car and the first thing they do is pull out a recording and start to play it on a loop."

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Tags: Birds