Bird calls and playback

There is no denying that wildlife photography has been an effective tool for conservation of wildlife to a certain extent. Although,aggressive wildlife photography, in the intrusive ways it is practiced today, can safely be termed a menace. The boom in social media has also seen the boom in several unethical practices that wildlife photographers deploy to get those ‘magical’ shots of their subjects, and one such practice when it comes to shooting birds, is ‘playback’.

Bird songs delight our senses, and hearing a Shama or a Blackbird break into their cheerful and ebullient song is a gloriously uplifting sensation. We admire these calls and have eulogized them in literature and have been influenced by them in the development of our own music. But we have also learnt to use calls on the birds themselves to serve our own purposes, leading to mixed consequences for the targets.

We use bird call playback to evoke response from birds. Call playback or tape-lure is a technique of playing back a sound to which a (most often unseen) bird responds by calling back and/or coming close to the source of the sound. It can be achieved by playing back pre-recorded calls, or recording a bird call in the field and playing it back, or by playing back a hostile call which can be a predator call or a mobbing sound. The equipment used can be tape recorders, disc players, i Pods or similar. These devices are often coupled with external speakers to boost the signal and can include the use of portable megaphones.

Scientists, researchers, ornithologists, bird-ringers, poachers,tour-guides and amateur birders widely and regularly use call playback. It is known to be a particularly effective tool for bird surveys, field-experiments, migration study, bird trapping for science and for food, and often to show ‘sought-after’and skulking endemics to paying birdwatchers and bird photographers.

Call playback therefore begs the question – is there an impact of call playback on birds and their welfare and should we worry about its use? The answer is available now in a paper entitled“Simulated Birdwatchers’ Playback Affects the Behavior of Two Tropical Birds” published in PLOS One by Harris and Haskell. They conclude that “Increased vocalizations after playback could be interpreted as a negative effect of playback if birds expend energy, become stressed, or divert time from other activities.”But not all birds are affected in the same way and some even get accustomed to it. So, while the impact of playback can be negative, there are exceptions and some positives too.

Positives of call playback

  1. Playback helps in locating shy and skulking species and is a tool to record their status and range.
  2. Playback helps bring the bird out from its hiding place and thereby limits the damage to the habitat and disturbance
  3. Playback generally focuses on a single species and limits disturbance to others which could be caused if one went inside the habitat to search for the target bird.
  4. Playback allows tour companies/bird guides to show highly sought after species with a greater degree of certainty there by growing bird-related tourism and indirectly help in habitat and species conservation.

Negatives of call playback

  1. Playback response may incur energy costs, disrupt social systems, lead to pair break-ups and cause stress to birds.
  2. Playback is an intrusion, is unethical, and a form of“cheating”.
  3. Playback can lure birds to traps.
  4. Playback can expose birds to predators by bringing them outing to the open.
  5. Playback may have long-term impact on bird welfare and it is safer to err on the side of caution.

Whichever side of the debate is to your liking, there is some fairly universal common ground on the subject:

  1. Everyone agree that playback should be avoided wherever species of conservation concern are involved.
  2. Playback should only be used inside all protected places for serious scientific research and all others should be prohibited from using any playback devices.
  3. Playback should never be continuous and at high volume.

Call playback is becoming fairly common across India,particularly in fragile and sensitive areas like the Western Ghats and the Eastern Himalayas. There seem to be no rules or concern against its use. It is high time that there was sensitivity on this issue, some responsible behavior from bird guides/tour leaders, and some rules put in place against their use on threatened species and in protected areas. Birds call for their own need and give us immense pleasure as a result. Let us not  use call playback irresponsibly and in a way that may have a negative impact on the well being of the very things we love. Ask yourself and act according to your conscience! Happy birding!

Illustration : Rohan Chakravarty

This article first appeared in the January 2014 edition of Saevus magazine


About the Author /

Co-author of The Sundarbans Inheritance, expert birder, photographer and financial analyst, Sumit Sen has an abiding interest in documenting the birdlife of eastern India. He has contributed articles to the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society, Sanctuary, Indian Birds, and Saveus, and has peer reviewed articles appearing in various scientific journals.

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