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Open Mic: Bionic Birding – Microphone Assisted Birding in the Digital Age

At the Mic: Rob Fergus

Dr. Rob Fergus is an ornithologist who specializes in urban ecology and human/wildlife interactions. In addition to researching and consulting on human/bird interactions in cities across the United States, Latin America, and Europe, he currently teaches at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J. and Rosemont College in Philadelphia, Pa.  He also writes at The Birdchaser and Urban Birdscapes blogs, and contributes to Birding is Fun.

Other Open Mics by Rob include Dreaming both big and small: saving birds one county (and box of donuts) at a time.


NFC setupThis past spring I started recording the nocturnal bird migration over my house with an Oldbird 21c microphone.  The microphone sits out in my yard, and I run a cable from the mic to my computer inside my home.  Every night my computer  automatically records the sounds picked up by the mic, and each morning I use several other programs to review the recording, locate bird calls, and make spectrograms of the calls. Then I identify and catalog the calls by referring to online resources and other published night flight call (NFC) libraries.

I was quickly amazed by the number of birds calling over my home each night.  Early in the spring, most of the calls were White-throated Sparrows–sometimes hundreds a night.  Other birds weren’t as easy to identify.  One call was particularly
puzzling, and in consultation with more experienced listeners on the NFC email list, I was finally able to identify it as a Virginia Rail call.

This was amazing!  Virginia Rails are almost impossible to find in my county, but one had flown over my house while I was asleep!  I recorded another one flying over a couple days later.  I didn’t want to miss rare birds like this.  As a birder, it wasn’t enough for
me to study migration by finding and identifying bird calls after the fact, I wanted to hear the bird live!

So I started spending hours each night listening to the microphone by plugging headphones into my laptop.  As I sat at my kitchen table, I could hear the birds flying high overhead–it was like having a telescope for my ears!  While I might hear only a few dozen calls outside with my naked ears, the microphone could pick up hundreds of higher or more distant birds and soon my listening was rewarded–I heard and recorded the passage of such local rare migrants as Whimbrel, Short-billed Dowitcher, Black-crowned Night Heron, and American Bittern.  My yard list was  booming!  While a local birder might be lucky to hear one or two Black-billed Cuckoos in a given year, I could often hear a half dozen or more before bedtime!  And since I was recording everything I heard, I could go back later and review the recording to help me identify the nearly impossibly short and similar sounding flight calls of warblers, sparrows, thrushes, and more!  I wasn’t just counting birds that went bump in the night–I was documenting my identifications with sound recordings and spectrograms.

I was making all kinds of discoveries, learning a ton, and enjoying migration more than ever before.  Everything was great.  Or so I thought.

Turns out several of my birding buddies were ticked off that I was reporting these birds on my personal eBird account.  My county year list was  now tainted.  They told me that birds heard through a microphone shouldn’t count for your personal lists.  Counting birds heard through a  microphone feed was cheating.  Whereas I found listening to high flying migrants through a microphone similar to watching distant birds
through a spotting scope, one of my friends said he thought it was more like counting birds that you saw on a closed circuit camera feed.  Not cool.

As far as I can tell, the ABA listing rules do not prohibit counting birds heard live through a digital device.  Since I was hearing the birds live, albeit with the aid of digital enhancement, I counted them.  But maybe I was wrong?  Maybe digitally assisted listening shouldn’t count?  In this digital birding age of microphones, digital cameras, and other devices, what are we to make of bird encounters mediated by digital technology?
We are way beyond arguing over the countability of heard birds.  Now we have to ask if birds heard through a digital listening device count.

So where do you come down on this issue?  Is listening to birds through a microphone a legitimate and even cutting-edge birding technique, or is it cheating–a fly by night dirty trick?

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Nate Swick

Nate Swick

Editor, Social Media Manager at American Birding Association
Nate Swick is the editor of the American Birding Association Blog, social media manager for the ABA, and the host of the American Birding Podcast. He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Danielle, and two young children. He is the author of Birding for the Curious and The ABA Field Guide to Birds of the Carolinas.
Nate Swick

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  • Jake McCumber

    I think there are a couple of different things going on here. One – the most important – should be kept specific to the data and its value. These nocturnal recordings are opening up a new and critical aspect of natural history and monitoring. We should all want to have better understanding of bird migration, what species are heading over, when, and where. This will fill in gaps of understanding and gaps in conservation. The data should be recorded and warehoused in eBird and elsewhere for reference and data analysis. I personally enjoy the competitive listing tools eBird has developed, but do not want to see those eclipse the great value as a citizen science and bird occurrence documentation tool.

    With regard to yard listing and life listing those are different and more personal issues. I think a yard list gets anything recorded by whatever means because you’ve documented that occurrence whether with a remote camera, microphone, or sitting in a lawn chair with a beer and binocular. Beyond that I’m not diving into ABA listing rules or personal life list decisions. I just want to see people appreciate the value of this data and see the data go somewhere useful.

  • I like Jake’s take on this issue. As far as eBird goes, the data is more important than anyone’s opinions about the “listing game”. However, for those playing the game, I suspect that the ABA will need to establish rules and guidelines with regard to this newly accessible bird observation technique. Great post Rob!

  • Peter Lawrance

    I have wanted to try this ever since I first read about it a few years ago. However I live very close to a major airport and am directly under the flight path. I fear I’d end up just recording airplane noise.

    I agree with Robert about the value of the data trumping other concerns, but lots of people like to play the game. For the moment ebird’s lists are limited to geographic location. There’s no “heard only”, or “self found”, “saw it poop” list options. So if you want to play the game and also submit “tainted” data, it gets complicated. I guess you could always set up a second ebird account.

    But now to the question is. Is the list tainted? In my mind, it is not a question of technology but of mediation. We use optics (binoculars, scopes, telephoto lenses) to see birds and no one questions the validity of the sighting. You can see a bird, take a photo of it, confirm the identification from the photo, and no one would question the tick on your list. I don’t think audio is different. You can certainly make a tick if you hear a bird, (although I know some purists won’t make a lifelist tick for a heard only bird). You can record a song and confirm the id from that later, just like you can a photo and I wouldn’t deny that tick either. I know of devices that bring down the frequency of bird songs for those with difficulty with the high end of bird song and I’d say they heard the bird. Ditto for the recordist with a parabolic mic.

    So why are your buddies annoyed? Well, it may not be logical, but at a visceral level something feels wrong. Something just seems differnt about sitting at your computer listening to the bird songs. It feels remote, removed from the actual event taking place. Maybe if you were sitting in the dark, shivering in the cold with the headphones clamped over your ears instead of at the kitchen table it wouldn’t.

    So I think it is not audio vs. optics. It is not about technology. It is about the level of remove or how the bird was mediated. Just a week ago, we saw a blog post about birding by webcam. I didn’t get the impression that anyone was adding birds they saw that way to their lifelist. But why not? (assuming you are watching a live feed and not a recording). You’ve certainly put in the time looking.
    Or put another way
    If you see a bird, you can say you’ve seen it
    If you see a bird through your scope, you can say youve seen it.
    If you see a bird through someone else’s scope, you can say you’ve seen it.
    If you see a bird through an ipad mounted to a scope for digiscoping, can you say you’ve seen it?
    What if you are looking over the should of the birder with the ipad and scope?
    And now what if that ipad is connected to the scope through the ether at some distance away?

    …and why should it be different for sound?

    I’m not wise enough to propose a new listing rule to the ABA. But gosh what an interesting question?

  • Paul Hurtado

    This issue is pretty straightforward in my mind, as I see very strong parallels between audio and visual observations assisted by technology. Basically,

    Birds observed through optics (a tool for visual enhancement) count, while recorded on a trail camera, nest box camera, etc. certainly do not.

    Birds observed through a mic and headphones (a tool for audio enhancement) count, while birds recorded on automated recording systems do not.

    Birding is a sport, and I think this parallel is well within the established “rules” of what counts as a sporting observation vs. otherwise. That’s key, I think.

    As far as scientific data, however, all bets are off! A quality audio or visual recording is good either way, although supporting documentation from an actual observer, present at the time of the recording, would also add value.

    As a side note, I think the birding world is primed for more birders to start using audio audio amplifiers to hear target birds. Especially those with poor hearing in some or all of their auditory range, and among the visually impaired.

  • anon

    I agree with most of what others have posted. It’s valuable data regardless of listing games. Live listening to a microphone counts for listing as far as I’m concerned. I would not personally want to count a recorded bird or a webcam bird as a life bird but I guess there are some who might want to. I’m not much into listing games so I can’t help you out there.

  • As long as it is correctly identified I think nocturnal flight call data is valid whether you hear it live or over coffee the next morning, and it should be entered into eBird. As far as listing is concerned – it’s your list, do whatever you want.

    If you’re officially entering the data in some ABA event, like a Big Day; they have rules and you are honor bound to abide by them in order to be included in the game. If they don’t have a rule for this situation, or the current rules are unclear, I would think you would have to appeal for a clear ruling by the governing body before making a tick in whatever game you’re playing.

    eBird is not the ABA. I am unaware of any mandate by eBird to abide by the ABA’s rules of listing. If you read the “About the eBird Top 100” page they make it quite clear that these lists are not vetted like the data used for scientific output. If I want to tick the Black Swan of questionable provenance, it will show up on my list, (but not on vetted eBird output like maps) and that count will be reflected in my “Top 100” ranking. Clearly not anything the ABA would allow as “tickable”. In the same vein, eBird is scientifically interested in the sightings of Nutmeg Manikins and Black-throated Magpie-jays, the ABA not so much.

    eBird has intentionally put in a number of features that cater to competitive birders. These are found in the “Your Totals” pane on the “Explore Data” page. They state, “the Top100 is meant to incentivize reporting complete checklists….”. Perhaps these features have become so personally important to a portion of the users that some would like to create rules to exclude your data, even if it is a scientifically legitimate data point. Which should be served in the use of eBird data, science or the competitive user? I come down on the side of science and that is why I said your data should be entered into eBird at the start.

    I’m not a fan of the “Your Totals” features in eBird and would opt out if i could. I think it can fuel competitive impulses like those found in your buddies who are ticked off. There is no way that I know of to opt out of having your personal totals show up in compilations like “The Top 100” except by hiding your data, which defeats the scientific purposes of eBird. However if there was an “opt out” option, and you took advantage of it, then your totals wouldn’t show up and your buddies wouldn’t be ticked off at you. The only thing that could happen to their “score” would be a possible drop in the percentage of total birds seen in the area of interest.

    However if you like being in the “Top 100” and wouldn’t opt out even if you could, then tell your buddies they’re free to set themselves up to tick flight calls themselves. I assume the researchers using eBird data would love to have more data points like yours. If I didn’t find the whole prospect so technologically daunting I’d be adding nocturnal flight call data myself.
    greg Haworth
    Portland oregon

  • Rob

    Thanks for the comments so far, keep them coming. Between having no power due to the hurricane, and chasing storm birds, I will probably won’t be able to comment much for the next few days. Cheers and good birding!

  • Ted Floyd

    Hi, all. Sorry–am coming in way late on this one. What can I say?–I was busy in October. The usual excuses: travel, deadlines, kids, birding…

    Anyhow, this post by Rob Fergus is great. My guess is, 30 years from now, this “controversy” will seem amusingly moot. (In 30 years, The Singularity, which Google, will have happened, right? We’ll all be one, giant e-Brain, right?) Anyhow, 30 years from now, the question of whether to “count” digitally assisted birds will probably seem as obvious as the question in 2012 of whether to count birds seen through binoculars, or through eyeglasses. Yes, there are some holdouts in 2012. Regardless, by 2042, I suspect everything we do will be not only digitally assisted, but, in fact, entirely virtual. Me?–if I’m still around, I’m planning on being entirely an eBeing. You heard it here first…

  • Ted Floyd

    As usual, Paul Hurtado brilliantly cuts through the clutter and offers a clear definition of terms. On the one hand, I agree with Paul: For many people, the distinction is precisely as Paul has laid it out. On the other hand, I disagree with Paul: That is to say, I, personally, don’t believe in the distinction; this is a matter of personal conviction.

    That said, I think time will prove me, in some sense, “right”… 🙂

    Already, in 2012, half of “virtual reality” is “reality.” And the boundary is becoming rapidly blurred. A little while ago, I had the fascinating experience not only of viewing an object (not a bird, but it could have been) remotely through a webcam, but also of operating the contraption! I was able to pan left and right, zoom in and out, and alter a few settings on the gizmo’s light-settings. All in real time. And I was miles away from the contraption. And check this out: I was light years away from the object I was observing. Was my experience somehow less “real” (i.e., did it somehow “count” less) than somebody who experienced it by jamming her eye against the eyepiece of a telescope? I don’t see how.

    Similarly, imagine viewing a distant bird through one of those old Celestron or Questar scopes. The bird is so far away you can’t even see it. But there it is, plainly identifiable, through the high-power scope. Mind you, I have no problems with that scenario. To me, the distant Bald Eagle, or Himalayan Snowcock, or whatever “counts.” An otherwise invisible and inaccesible bird has been brought into view via technology. How does that differ from observing such a bird via a webcam?

    Someday soon, we’ll come to appreciate that telescopes and webcams alike provide a means for “remote sensing” of the environment. And, someday soon, we’ll realize that Paul Hurtado, as brilliant and as clear as he is, just happens to be wrong on this one… 🙂

  • Ted Floyd

    A final thought, and then I gotta log off for a while. Here goes. It occurs to me that we’ve been down this road before. Here:

    The bottom line: Everything we experience is, well, just an experience. We value those experiences differently. I, personally, tend to connect more powerfully with the experience of sensing birds in the form of air molecules jostling about the cochleae of my ears; other birders, I well appreciate, connect more powerfully with the experience of sensing birds in the form of electromagnetic radiation exciting photoreceptors in their eyes.

    And as Paul Hurtado importantly notes, the venue is important: For Paul, it is important to conduct remote sensing in the field; for me and others, it is exciting to do in a lab or via headphones. Regardless, it’s all an indirect, remote experience. The experience of identifying a bird in the field is, in point of fact, an amazingly abstract and abstruse exercise in remote sensing, signal processing, cultural conditioning, and ontology. Bird identification is a human–and therefore a highly abstract–endeavor. To me, detecting a bird indoors vs. outdoors is a piddlingly trite distinction.

    Then again, there remain a few holdouts, even in this 2nd decade of the 21st century, stubbornly clinging to the pleasant, ancient Platonic fantasy that there are natural things in this world, and unnatural things. You know: People who distinguish between “native” and “non-native” birds and avifaunas… 🙂

    On that note, I yesterday scored yet another Indian Peafowl eBird for Boulder County, Colorado: a beautiful male strutting about an old field. It was in the company of European Starlings, American Robins, and Canada Geese. It was interacting with the environment just like the starlings (countable?), the robins (countable!), and geese (some countable, some not, but who knows??). My daughter was with me, and she remarked, “Now THAT should be the state bird.” She has a point; there are no Lark Buntings (our state bird) in Colorado right now; the Indian Peafowl better exemplifies the reality of the Colorado avifauna.

    Don’t like it? She’ll likely be around in 65 years, but most of the rest of you won’t. She and other enlightened young people will win this one, eventually. As to me?–Tomorrow, I’m voting for WRST (Weekly Rolling Standard Time; see Facebook) and Indian Peafowl for Colorado State Bird. ¡Viva la Revolución!

  • Rob

    Status Update: 6/3013
    Here in my neck of the woods, my buddies are no longer sharing their sightings with me. Last weekend they had a Mourning Warbler (locally scarce migrant) and made sure to enter it into eBird 4 days later after it was gone. The reason? NFCs. Up until now, out of respect for my friends’ views, I’ve only reported NFCs that I’ve heard naked ear outside, without the microphone. But for some reason, even that is now making them upset. So maybe this isn’t about technology at all, but something else? Oh well 🙁

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