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Should We Change the ABA Code of Birding Ethics?

J. D. Phillips, an ABA member from Marquette, Michigan, proposes in the November 2012 Birding that the ABA Code of Birding Ethics be tweaked just a bit. The Code currently states:

IpodsLimit 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.

Phillips believes that that wording is too vague. Accordingly, he proposes the following, simpler language:

The ABA discourages the use of recordings to attract birds in the field.

What do you think? Is Phillips right? Should the ABA take a harder line against the use of iPods and other contraptions for luring in birds?

LettersJ. D. Phillips is just one of eight contributors to the November 2012 installment of “Your Letters.” The other writers are every bit as opinionated! Martin Meyers writes about the addition of Hawaii to the ABA Area; Glenn Smith opines about the respective “jurisdictions” of bird records committees; Philip Thomas disagrees with an editorial practice at Birding magazine, and Macklin Smith provides a fun response; Joelle Buffa and Clyde Morris exult in the glories of greenbirding; and Dave Lauten wishes we’d run more articles like Mark Maftei’s feature in the May 2012 issue on Ross’s Gulls.

You owe it to yourself to read each letter in its entirety. Our eight correspondents write about diverse topics, and they do from diverse perspectives and experiences; but they are united in a spirit of concern and thoughtfulness.

And now the obvious question: What do you think?

What are your thoughts on playback, Hawaii, bird records committees, editorial observances at Birding, greenbirding, and Ross’s Gulls? Let’s talk about it!


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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives of the ABA. He is the author of more than 100 magazine and journal articles, and has written four recent books, including an ABA title, the ABA Guide to Birds of Colorado. Floyd is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and state ornithological society meetings, and he has served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations. Mainly, he listens to birds at night.
Ted Floyd

Latest posts by Ted Floyd (see all)

  • Aaron G

    The only topic of interest I have an opinion on is playback. I will be the first to admit, I use playback. I don’t run around in the woods blasting bird songs though. I use it typically during migration to document birds I see around that may be uncommon. For example, a couple of days ago at Douglas Park in Chicago(of elaenia fame), I was monitoring and I saw an Eastern Phoebe. Phoebes should have been out of the are a couple of weeks ago. I played its normal song, it came out for a minute, I photographed it, and we each went on our merry ways. What I don’t believe is ok is if you go to an active breeding ground and play songs for 20 minutes straight. It is almost guaranteed that the bird will disrupted for a while. Playback is a tool to use under discretion. Some people blatantly overuse it forcing others to take a viewpoint that is similar to Phillips’s. I believe the current policy that the ABA has should not be changed.

  • Scott Pendleton

    I limit playback to surveying situations for cryptic species. For example, on our upcoming CBC, I will use the Hermit Thrush call at sumac thickets. Another example would be calling rails or owls on breeding bird surveys. It helps document birds that would otherwise be overlooked. Another issue is what is the definition of playback? If phishing imitates a chickadee or if I can mimic a screech owl, are these a form of playback? They most certainly fire up the birds in certain cases.
    Lastly, my thoughts on playback have changed with my ability. It really helped put a face to the sound when I began on this journey known as birding.

  • Scott Pendleton

    I forgot to put my opinion. I do not believe it needs changed for what the current code says.

  • David Cesari

    For crying out loud you people need to get a life. What’s next the birding police. I’ve been a birder for over 50 years. I don’t need some young twit telling me what to do.

  • “I use it…to document birds I see around that may be uncommon.”

    You say “uncommon,” so you’re okay on a technicality. Now if you had said “rare”… Well, see below.

    I find that a lot of people imagine that the ABA Code of Birding Ethics addresses the matter of playing recordings during the breeding season. It doesn’t. However, the Code does state, quite clearly so (boldface mine):

      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.

    So if your Eastern Phoebe is merely “uncommon,” I guess you’re okay–although this seems borderline.

    But let’s say it’s a Say’s Phoebe, which is rare in your area. No dice on using playback. And the ABA is quite clear that such a bird would not count for any ABA lists:

      “Members who submit lifelist and annual list totals to the American Birding Association for publication in the annual ABA List Report must observe the ABA Recording Rules…The bird must have been encountered under conditions that conform to the ABA Code of Birding Ethics.

    Again: Rare birds attracted by recordings do not count for ABA lists. For sure, there seems to be a lot of “gray area” in such matters as “bankable” exotics (cf. Wednesday’s discussion). On the contrary, the ABA is crystal-clear that we cannot count rarities lured in with recordings.

    Let’s put this in a practical context. If a tour leader is about to play an iPod to “tape in” a rare bird, she should clearly state to her participants that the act of doing so prohibits participants from adding that bird to any of their ABA lists.

  • “Another example would be calling rails or owls on breeding bird surveys. It helps document birds that would otherwise be overlooked.”

    If your objectives are science, or, even better, conservation, then I’m 100% with you. And I should point out that J. D. Phillips, in his letter, makes precisely the same point. From his letter: “genuine scientific work notwithstanding, of course…”

    I accept that the use of sound recordings–along with banding, trapping, and, yes, collecting–plays an essential role in ornithology and bird conservation. But I also believe that the ABA Code of Ethics, as currently worded, prevents us from listing rare birds attracted with sound recordings. By all means, let me know if I’m misreading something.

  • So… Keep the wording as is?–We don’t count for our lists rare birds attracted by sound recordings?

  • (If you’d been birding for only 5 years or 5 months, would that make a difference?)

    As to “birding police,” well, many of us would say that we do need some rules if we’re going to play the listing game. When you submit a list or lists for the ABA Big Day & ABA List Report, you do, in fact, sign off on the following:

      Members who submit lifelist and annual list totals to the American Birding Association for publication in the annual ABA List Report must observe the ABA Recording Rules.

    If you elect not to play by the rules, that’s fine, and there are other outlets for listing, e.g., eBird, which does not prohibit the use of sound recordings for attracting rare birds.

  • Peter

    People need to use common sense, have some patience, and put in a little time & effort to seeing a bird, not just hit a button and call it in. It is clearly posted in National Wildlife Refuges that using a tape to call a bird in or approaching too closely for a photograph is against the law. I have often pointed this out to people breaking these rules and knowing I have the law behind me helps, though I doubt the Birding Code of Ethics will have the same effect. Hate to say it, but with clearly stated rules it might help others protect the birds from harassment, so yes, I vote to amend the code of ethics. A shame that people need rules to read and can’t make their own proper decisions.

  • When the ABA CoBE says you can’t tape in rare birds, is it referring to rare breeders, ie Northern Goshawk in Pennsylvania, or to vagrants, ie Virginia’s Warbler in New York?

    I think they are two very different situations.

  • One other thought. J. D. Phillips’ proposed rewording does not include the ironclad prohibition against the use of recordings to attract rare birds. Instead, that’s in the current version. Phillips’ proposed rewording merely “discourages” the use of sound recordings to attract birds in the field.

  • Also, in response to the actual question, I am in favor of the guidelines always discouraging the use of playback. There are uses for playback, but they are few, and discouraging it doesn’t really limit it from being used when needed.

  • Hey, Drew. The ABA Code of Birding Ethics states, “rare in your local area.” So that would certainly seem to apply to a Virginia’s Warbler in New York.

    (The pedant in me wants it to say “rare, casual, or accidental in your local area.”)

    Again, a nice thing, in my opinion, about J. D. Phillips’ proposed change is that it eliminates the apparent prohibition (“never” is pretty strong!) against the use of sound recordings to attract rare birds.

  • David Cesari

    Of course it would make a difference. Who are you to set yourself as the rulmaker. You think you have some special say because you are filled with your own importance. Choose not to play by what rules? I believe that birding is an individual thing. I do not have to have some Guru to show me the “correct” way to bird or show me birds.

  • Ted, it seems that many folks here are making the assumption that playback negatively impacts birds. Let’s see the science on that first before we start down the slippery slope of the ABA controlling every aspect of our birding lives with rules as complicated as the U.S. tax code. Should the ABA also discourage backyard bird feeding? That appears to me to have far more impact on birds than the use of playback. David Sibley expressed his opinions on this subject very well in the not too distant past. This is an emotionally charged topic. I get it. I suggest we stay with the status quo until we have better information about the impact or lack thereof of playback. Surely a thesis for an aspiring ornithologist in our midst.

  • “I have often pointed this out to people breaking these rules and knowing I have the law behind me helps, though I doubt the Birding Code of Ethics will have the same effect.”

    I agree, it won’t have the same effect. For example, you can’t threaten legal action by way of the ABA Code of Birding Ethics… 🙂

    But I believe it might have a different, and rather salutary, effect. In my experience, a great many birders take the ABA Code of Birding Ethics quite seriously; in my experience, birders do aspire to abide by the Code. J. D. Phillips’ über-theme, it seems to me, is that the the ABA Code of Birding Ethics needs to be amended to reflect the realities of birding and the needs of birders in 2012. Who knows?–maybe we need wording that permits unlimited use of sound recordings in the field! Regardless, Phillips seems to be saying, we need some clarity on ethical birding in the iPod era.

    The preceding is not in any way a diss on the ABA Code of Birding Ethics. Alls I’m saying is that the Code, like the Bible and the U.S. Constitution, might benefit from amendment and interpretation so as to reflect current reality.

  • Hey, Robert. Totally agree with you about the need for better understanding about the effects, if any, of playback.

    But there seems to me to be a quite different matter on the table. The ABA Code of Birding Ethics currently states:

      “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.”

    Note the word “never.” That’s unequivocal, I would say.

  • There are many wonderful things about the ABA Code of Ethics but there are some serious flaws, too. Sure, “never” is unequivocal, but how about, “rare,” or “heavily birded areas?” In some places, the Code is a mishmash. In my opinion, it definitely needs revision.

    It’s a difficult task indeed to craft a Code that is clear but flexible enough to be useful in the infinitely varied situations that birding encompasses. The Code has done its job well but badly needs updating.

    I strongly second Robert’s mention of David Sibley’s post about using playback well. (

    I think Sibley’s is the best, truest summary of the issue I’ve seen. And I’d like to see our Code of Ethics revised to indicate that there are situations where playback can be extremely helpful and appropriate and others where it is clearly neither.

    I realize blanket prohibitions (or endorsements) are comforting to some but I generally find them of little use in dealing with the complex, often messy realities of living on Earth.

  • Dang, we need a “Like” button on blog comments. Well said President.

  • Morgan Churchill

    I personally don’t see a problem with the rules as is. I think it’s up to individual birders to make the decision on whether using playback is appropriate. At least, with the rules as written, some clarity is given on situations that are bad for playback (Endangered species, heavily birded areas). No guidelines are given under the revision.

    Playback can be great for instance on field trips, by allowing leaders to call in birds and get novices their first good looks at certain birds. The very first rails I ever saw were on a Audubon field trip, lured in by playback, as were some of the first warblers (Common Yellowthroat and Chestnut-sided).

  • The ABA only sets rules for those who decide to play by the ABA rules 🙂 No one is saying you can’t bird however you would like.

    A lot of us follow the ABA rules so that when we are sharing and comparing lists with our friends, we all know that each of us is following the same ‘rules’.

  • I would like to make a map that shows, using the correct scale, 10,000 polygons that represent birders. In other words a circle of 2 feet in diameter (realizing that some people’s diameters are bigger or smaller than others and do change over time….but I digress). I’d like to superimpose these birders on a map of the US. I believe that this would would show that the area we impact while birding is tiny. In other words, using playback only ‘potentially impacts’ a tiny percentage of the number of birds in the US on any given day. Now, sure, we aren’t distributed evenly on the landscape, and there are some places were our impact is more concentrated. Here’s a scenario. A rare Mourning Warbler shows up in Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta (a tiny postage stamp size park). The word goes out and birders descend (well…in Atlanta that may mean 30-40 birders and then probably <10 at a time). I hate to do this, because I usually get in trouble, but I'll do it anyway. NOTE: I AM ONLY TALKING ABOUT UNSCRUPULOUS PHOTOGRAPHERS. Now 'birders' have no problem seeing the birds in their bins. They can get great looks from a decent distance. However, then the UNSCRUPULOUS photographers come out, and they need the bird 5 feet from their lens....they want full frame shots. So they pull out the Ipods and play the song incessantly. The bird spends all day responding and forgets to eat and dies. No one would argue that that is okay. I could argue that it doesn't amount to a hill of beans on the population level, but just as I do about the cat issue, it's one dead bird that didn't need to die. Now let's take a Leconte's sparrow in wet grass and scrub. We could all stand on the edge, play the call, get the bird to pop up for documentation, and then go on our merry way, spending less than 10 minutes in the area.....OR we could walk through the vegetation, trampling it, and get furtive glimpses, and we would spend more time in the area then we really needed to. I know the purists will say we shouldn't do either, but there should be some level of reality in this discussion. I would maintain that in this case playback is better than trampling. Now would I say this if the area was birded every morning by 10 different parties. No....of course not. But again, this has no population level effects, and might be less invasive than working the area for 2 hours. Gotta agree with Jeff's last statement above about blanket prohibitions.

  • Thanks Robert and Jeff for the compliments on my blog post. I think this is a really important discussion and definitely something the ABA should take the lead on. Two things come to mind about this proposal: As people have pointed out, the ABA code of ethics is a set of voluntary guidelines, which means that the only enforcement is by self-monitoring or by other birders in the field. Therefore, the more clear and specific (and reasonable) you can make the rules, the happier everyone will be. Just saying that playback is “discouraged” means that anyone doing it, anywhere, can be told that they shouldn’t. Essentially it says playback is never OK, but might be tolerated. I predict it will create more strife between birders in the field, rather than less.

    Along the same lines, I think it’s counterproductive for the ABA to disallow species on a person’s list if they were found by playback. Would birds that are flushed also be disqualified? Would attracting birds by pishing and imitating owls also? In terms of disturbance to the birds I think there’s very little difference between careful playback and pishing.

    My two cents,

  • Rob

    Thanks for bringing this to our attention, if we technically can’t count taped in rarities or birds from popular birding locations then I think it is time to change this part of the ABA code! But like David Sibley, I think we should be careful about wording that appears to be a blanket negative. No matter what opponents of playback may desire, that horse has left the barn and we need to encourage judicious recording use, rather than think we are going to stop birders from using playback. How about something more positive like “The ABA encourages only the judicious use of recordings to attract birds in the field. As with all of your birding activities, be sensitive to the health and welfare of the birds, as well as the sensibilities and enjoyment of other birders.”

  • Scott Pendleton

    I am talking about science. But how one defines science is probably debatable. I would like to think my ebird lists are good solid scientifically valid numbers. Although, not all ebird lists are that way. To conserve you must have good data.

    My understanding is it is illegal to disturb endangered species and I believe threatened species. So the “never” should stay or even be strengthened with those two classes.

  • 1. This issue is complex because there are various ways people use audio to improve their chances of observing/encountering birds, AND there are many (often poorly understood) context-dependent impacts of those activities, some of which we all agree are bad but many of which we disagree on.

    Moreover, it’s almost reached the point where we need specific rules for situations where birds encounter birders very infrequently (i.e. lone birding in remove wilderness) AND specific rules for situations in which our aggregate affects become important, e.g., one playback to a male on territory frequently isn’t a problem for that bird, whereas 10 people per day doing the same thing might push the bird off territory, hamper foraging efforts, etc.

    2. I think this conversation needs to be based on a much clearer picture of we do and don’t know (based on evidence, not opinion) about the impacts of the various sounds birders make (directly or indirectly, it doesn’t matter) on birds AND on the ability of others to refind birds.

    3. I’m all for improving existing language, but change isn’t always improvement and in this case it looks like we’re tossing a decent bit of language and starting over from scratch with something that reads more like a divisive position statement on a hot-button political issue than it does a description of how birders should navigate a tricky ethical issue (i.e. the use of audio to detect birds).

    4. Finally, is this really the position that the ABA and it’s members hold? I don’t think so, at least not the members I know:

    “The ABA discourages the use of recordings to attract birds in the field.”

    Even if it were true, does it reflect a moral ideal we want others to adopt? Almost certainly no. For example, no audio for scientific studies? Is my whistled Screech Owl imitation somehow more ethical than a recording? What’s so special about RECORDINGS vs. SOUND produced by other means?

  • Alan Wormington

    Robert, I like your reply. Let’s stop this silliness. Its almost comical that I can obtain a hunting licence, and then go into the field and actually *KILL* a whole variety of lovely birds including ducks, geese, rails, doves, etc. But heaven forbid if I were to use a tape recorder to just *SEE* the same species! Totally insane that ABA doesn’t want me to play a tape to some warbler, and yet on a daily basis large tracts of land are bulldozed to supply us humans with our “stuff” (land for houses, timber, highways, etc. etc.). The ABA could save and protect WAY more birds by promoting less population growth — have they EVER discussed/promoted that topic?
    Here is a potentially real situation: I am in the wilderness of northern Ontario and I decide to play a taped song of Connecticut Warbler (according to ABA, I’m almost a criminal). But in the distance I hear a lot of commotion that is much louder than my tape recorder. What is it? Answer: A lumber company clear-cutting 1000 acres to provide timber to the local pulp mill. Too funny!

  • Alan Wormington

    Forgot to include this piece of relevent info: I don’t even own a tape recorder!

  • Andy Boyce

    Honest question — How many individual birds in Colorado this year were subject to intense and repetitive playback( several hours, over multiple days)?

    Honestly, the use of playback, at least in the temperate zone where few species have very restricted breeding or wintering distributions is a non-issue.

    The case of the Jocotoco Antpitta in Ecuador is/was a great case-study of a species that may have been negatively effected by playback had the folks at Fundacion Jocotoco not taken action by essentially designating one pair for human exposure. I simply do not see any analog in the ABA area (although if Hawaii is with us now I might have to amend that statement).

    Much ado about nothing?


    Andy Boyce (uses playback experiments in his research)
    Missoula, MT

  • Andy Boyce

    second paragraph should say “seems to me to be a non-issue”. Sorry.


  • I don’t think “rare” should necessarily mean “vagrant”. Say’s Phoebe is not a rare species. I think that part of the Code (“or is rare in your local area.”) should be struck. And Aaron’s Eastern Phoebe is not “uncommon” … it’s a common bird that’s just late.

    “Threatened”, “endangered”, “special concern”, have meaning that is easily defined and understood. “Rare in your local area”, is confusing, open to interpretation and misunderstanding.

  • Even “genuine scientific work” is a rather blurry term. Genuine scientists use eBird data for genuine work. Does that mean I’m justified in use of playback when casually birding my local patch because I enter the data into eBird and want as complete of a checklist as possible? The integration of citizen science into the hobby is one of the grandest beauties of birding to me, but it lays some semantic traps for those who would (justifiably) allow certain casual activities to scientists and withhold the same from hobbyist birders.

  • And I should have refreshed to see Scott’s comment before posting a redundant one…

  • While there is some extreme behavior that the majority of birders (and ornithologists) would agree is clearly detrimental to birds and other birders, such as photographers who hang multiple speakers in trees around a single bird’s territory and broadcast song to one individual bird for hours at a time while flashing away, or the obvious case of endangered species; there is a broad middle area on this issue where I think we just simply lack data. In consequence we are left with little but opinions to guide us and wide ranging opinions at that. Because of this, I think the ABA should tread lightly when laying down moral guidance to a constituency that is deeply divided on this issue. In fact, I believe the current rule as written is already a bit harsh given that we know so little about the effects of playback on birds. I think something a little more grounded and perhaps a vague discouragement, such as what Rob wrote above is a little closer to what we need right now (with keeping in the part about Threatened and Endangered Species and posted sensitive areas).

    On a completely seperate note, I LOVED the Ross’s Gull article in the May issue, it was probably my favorite story in Birding in years. It reminded me of the “Rare, Local and Little-Known and Declining North American Breeders” articles that were my absolute favorite thing in Birding back in the day when I first joined. I would strongly encourage similar future articles!

  • Andy: it’s not just about species – subspecies are a consideration as well. Ones like: California Clapper Rails, Wayne’s Black-throated Green Warblers, Western Willow Flycatchers, etc. etc. Irresponsible, over-the-top playback can negatively affect these subspecies. For example, there is now only one site in South Carolina where one can reasonably hope to see Wayne’s BTG Warblers. There are not a lot of birds there either. The area has dikes traversing it and none of the area is far removed from birder accessibility. Do you really contend that “wild west” playback rules are OK in that context?

    In terms of species: there is now only one place (Bear Island WMA) in South Carolina where one can reasonably hope to hear Black Rails. I contend that an “anything goes” policy is not OK in this context either.

    In this long-term drought / new reality, Swainson’s Warblers are really getting hard to find in the Francis Marion National Forest. They may be in better shape in other areas of (temperate) North America, but letting the dwindling handful of Francis Marion NF birds be subjected to as much playback as any slob birder wants to create is unacceptable in my book.

    I could go on with more examples, but your position strikes me as one that would benefit from more careful consideration.

    Nathan Dias – Charleston, SC

  • Ted Floyd

    “[T]the ABA code of ethics is a set of voluntary guidelines, which means that the only enforcement is by self-monitoring or by other birders in the field.”

    On the one hand, I get it. I, personally, count for my Colorado list such species as Mandarin Duck and and Rufous-collared Sparrow; I remember the thrill of my lifer Fiery-throated Hummingbird, which happened to be in a mist net; and if the prohibition against heard-only birds were restored, I’d still count Black Rail, of which I’ve heard many but seen nary a one.

    On the other hand, I accept that, if I’m going to play the game, I have to follow the rules. I can’t count Rufous-collared Sparrow for my ABA Area list; I wouldn’t have been able to count that particular Fiery-throated Hummingbird; and, back in the day, I wouldn’t have been able to count Black Rail.

    Let’s say I saw a Black Rail in New Jersey, and I got the bird by taping it in. Black Rail is Endangered in New Jersey ( On the one hand, I get that I could count that bird for my own personal list (AviSys, eBird, Excel spreadsheet, field notebook, whatever). On the other hand, I cannot count that Black Rail for inclusion in the ABA Big Day & ABA List Report. Sorry to sound like a broken record, but:

      “Members who submit life list and annual list totals to the American Birding Association for publication in the annual ABA List Report must observe the ABA Recording Rules…The bird must have been encountered under conditions that conform to the ABA Code of Birding 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.”

    Hey, if we want to change the rules, I’m way open to that possibility. But I can’t see any way around the following: As of today, December 7th, 2012, you can no more count that hypothetical Black Rail than you can count for your ABA Area list all the nifty birds you saw on your recent visit to Hawaii.

  • Andy Boyce

    Nate et al.,

    More careful consideration is almost always a good idea. That said, how many people per year go chasing “Wayne’s” Black-throated Green Warbler with playback? How many harass Swainson’s Warblers in the FMNF? How many pairs are harassed along the trails vs. all of the pairs farther off-trail. Based on that, can we really say this is a threat to these populations?

    Also, putting ecologically unimportant boundaries on populations like “Black Rails in South Carolina” is, well, ecologically unimportant.

    Do I want to see populations disappearing? No. (can anyone think of one that has…even putatively as a result of playback??) I just think that the biological threat from playback, especially for widespread species in the temperate zone, is a drop in the bucket compared to the other threats they face. Even birders, who are a tribe (myself included) that have the ability to muster anger about a tremendous number of things, have a finite amount of energy for advocacy. I believe this is not a cause worth even a fraction of that energy in comparison to real habitat conservation..etc.


  • Ted Floyd

    I agree with Jeff Gordon’s broad point, which I take to be that the ABA Code of Birding Ethics, Section 1(b), Paragraph 2 (“Limit the use of recordings…”) is a tad unclear. No biggie. You could certainly say the same thing of Genesis 2:5 or Amendment #2 to the U.S. constitution… 🙂

    An amusing Gedankenexperiment would be to try to divine the “framers’ intent.” Of course, you could ask them; some or all of them are still alive. But that would be no fun. So let’s try to do this on our own.

    On the one hand, I discern in the framers’ minds a pretty heavy stricture against the use of recordings: “limit the use,” “never use,” “any species,” etc.

    On the other hand, we’re living in different times. Vastly more of us have access now to iPods and the like; there is the matter of “science” and the actual effects, if any, of the use of sound recordings on birds (Robert Mortensen’s point); and perhaps our corporate sense of ethics has evolved from the time when the Code of Birding Ethics was enshrined.

    To quote a wise man: “There are many wonderful things about the ABA Code of Ethics but…it definitely needs revision.”

  • Answer to question 1: more than the remaining population each year I would say!

    Answer to question 2: FAR more than the population each year. Not each and every individual bird, but some of the areas with the most competition by males in the spring are right by roads, trails, etc. and easily accessible + fairly well known. They like cane-heavy thickets around openings and edges in the canopy and roads keep such conditions going year after year. I have spent a lot of time over the decades slogging off-road in the FMNF. There, Swainson’s are more present near roads, jeep trails, storm-damaged patches and so forth. Sadly, there is less of this cane-heavy habitat than in the 70s – due in no small part to drought plus too-frequent controlled burning cycles along swamps (for Deer and Turkey hunting).

    Will playback extirpate Swainson’s Warblers in the FMNF? Not by itself. But we owe it to these species to eliminate as many cuts of the “death by a thousand cuts” as possible. Your argument sounds dangerously close to feral cat advocates saying window collisions and development are more detrimental than cats. The truth is, we need to eliminate as many unnatural detriments as possible – not rationalize away the smaller ones.

    My mention of SC Black Rails could also have included Georgia I think – or I could have said “between coastal North Carolina and Florida.” Eastern Black Rails have a very thin band, with far more gaps than not, of remaining breeding areas along the east coast. They essentially breed in an extremely narrow strip of brackish marshes (and a few waterfowl impoundments). I would say each and every sub-population of Black Rails is very important to preserve, especially in light of events like Hurricane Sandy, sea level rise, Marsh die-off, etc. If it makes you feel better, rephrase as above and remove geopolitical boundaries.

  • Hi Ted, My point in the sentence you quoted was simply that the code of ethics needs to be really clear about when playback is fine and when it’s not, because all the enforcement is by birders and if it stays vague it gives too much room for interpretation; some birders will attract birds when they shouldn’t, and others will confront birders who are using playback properly. The new wording is not only more vague, but also more negative than the old, and I feel strongly that is going in the wrong direction.

    Whether Black Rails are countable is an interesting question for the listing rules committee and it sounds like that should be reviewed, but it’s not just about playback. The current rules would also seem to disallow any bird attracted by pishing, feeding, water drips, etc, at places like Cape May and High Island. For me, the code of ethics has nothing to do with listing. It’s just about how we should conduct ourselves to minimize our impact on birds.

    And yes, I’m in favor of adding Hawaii to the ABA area.

  • Hi, David. You say: “For me, the code of ethics has nothing to do with listing.”

    YMMV, as they say.

    As I see it, the Code of Birding Ethics is powerfully connected to listing. When you submit a list to the ABA, you sign off on this:

      “(5) The bird must have been encountered under conditions that conform to the ABA Code of Birding Ethics.”

    Thus, as I see it, here are some birds that I cannot count for my 2012 ABA Area year list:

    1. The Laysan Albatross I saw on my hypothetical visit to Hawaii. [Because my Laysan Albatross, although on the ABA Checklist, was seen in Hawaii, which isn’t in the ABA Area.]

    2. The Purple Swamphen I saw on my hypothetical visit to Florida. [Because Purple Swamphen, although apparently well established in Florida, isn’t on the ABA Checklist.]

    3. The Black Rail I taped in on my hypothetical visit to New Jersey. [Because taping in Endangered species is prohibited by the ABA Code of Birding Ethics, and lists submitted to the ABA must be of birds encountered under conditions that conform to the ABA Code of Birding Ethics.]

    I’m pretty sure we’d agree that, if I were playing by ABA rules (i.e., if I submitted a list for publication in the ABA Big Day & ABA list report), I couldn’t include Laysan Albatross and Purple Swamphen on my list for the ABA Area.

    I’m saying the taped-in New Jersey Black Rail is similarly disqualified. Note that I’m only saying the rules say that; I’m not necessarily saying it’s my personal preference.

    P.s. Re: “And yes, I’m in favor of adding Hawaii to the ABA area.” I’m just the messenger, but here goes: Stay tuned to The ABA Blog for conversation on that one!

    P.p.s. Does this mean we can expect to see Hawaiian birds illustrated in your next field guide? Brilliant! 🙂

  • David Cesari

    My wife & I are loners we bird together or I do it by myself. We don’t subscribe to the ABA silliness. We don’t submit lists to the ABA or anywhere else. I think this all just something that does not matter to most of the birders I run into out in the field. But feel free to play the game however you like. The ABA shouldn’t set themselves up as the “Birding Police”.

  • Alan Wormington

    Here’s my solution: Keep playing the tapes but don’t bother sending in your list totals. Problem solved!

  • Andy Boyce

    Nate et al.,

    The bottom line is there is no evidence (that I can find on google scholar) that playback has any real effect on bird populations.

    There is a tremendous amount of evidence regarding the number of birds killed by feral cats every year, so I think that analogy falls a little flat.

    There are also a ton of issues facing N. American and Hawaiian birds for which ample evidence does exist showing detrimental effects on populations. I suggest the ABA and it’s constituents focus on those and not on a non-issue like playback.


  • James Warren

    You say that, and yet…you’re on the ABA blog. No need to be purposefully argumentative in a discussion entirely meant to be civil.

  • Diana Doyle

    We will soon have a new generation of birders, who have grown up with tiny handheld electronic gadgets as common in their pockets as a house key. Given this, it seems to me that it is time to revise the code on playback, in part to create a community and conservation norm to pass on to very young and future birders.

  • TN Birder

    Honestly, there are pros and cons for both sides–people thinking it is ok to use playback and people who don’t think it is ok to use playback. The code should probably say: “The ABA recommends that birders do not use playback to attract well-off-range (rare/vagrant) birds or species with a species concern number above 2 or 3″ or something of the like.”
    I personally think that playback is ok to use….in limited quantities, but not on vagrant birds. I do not use playback more than three times a day.
    But what if you or someone else finds a bird that has never before been recorded in the ABA area, or hasn’t been seen world-wide in 1+ years and you decide to go try to find it. You get there, you haven’t seen the bird and you’ve been there for over 1 hr. Should you use playback to possibly find this bird more easily?
    Tough question to answer.

  • David Cesari

    Yes I am indeed on the ABA blog. I guess mainly out of simple curiousity. Also to see how far this sillyness will go

  • How do you define endangered? Black Rail is not on the U.S. Endangered Species List. It may be on a N.J. state list but if we’re going to get technical this needs to be defined. And these lists tend to be moving targets so determining what is & what is not an endangered species could be problematic in some cases. (BTW still no Nov. Birding in north-central Idaho, I will let you know when it arrives!)

  • I understand the concern about using playback to call in rare breeding birds but I don’t see any problem with using it for vagrants. They aren’t defending territories and even if they were negatively effected (which there is almost no evidence for), what happens to one individual vagrant will have a negligible effect on the population. In general I really doubt playing a call once or twice to get a bird to respond is ever a problem, it only becomes an issue if done over and over.

  • I’m a little slow to follow up on this, but I wanted to clarify my comment about the code of ethics and listing. As you say, everyone is free to keep their own list, and that just emphasizes the point that the code of ethics is a far more important document than the listing rules. It is read by more people and provides guidance for all of our birding, whether we are submitting list totals to ABA or not.

    In your hypothetical examples the albatross and the swamphen are not countable because the birds are not countable, either outside the region or not part of an accepted wild and established population. The Black Rail would not be countable because of the behavior of the birder. I think that’s an important distinction, and makes this a different sort of rule.

    The code of ethics needs to clear, specific, and reasonable. It doesn’t need to threaten any consequences. It just needs to appeal to our love of birds and suggest ways to conduct ourselves in the field to minimize the impact on birds. The listing rules might incorporate some of the ethics, but the ethics stands alone, with our without listing, and we all strive to follow the ethical code regardless of whether we report list totals.

    The fundamental question underneath this technical discussion of listing rules is whether we approve or disapprove of playback. I think playback, done responsibly, is fine in most circumstances.

    –two more cents
    David Sibley

  • “Just saying that playback is “discouraged” means that anyone doing it, anywhere, can be told that they shouldn’t.”

    That’s a good point, David. For sure it would be a real drag to get nagged (about playbacks, or anything else, for that matter) while out birding. Birding should be a nag-free, no whining zone (hey, most of us get more than our fill of nagging and whining during the non-birding part of our lives). I would hope, though–alas, probably way too naively–that most birders have much better things to do than to spend their time nagging other birders about codes of ethics.

    I tend to think–again, probably naively–of the ABA’s code of ethics as a starting point for self-reflection about our own birding practices, as opposed to an opportunity to try to straighten out other birders ethically. Note that “discouraged” has a markedly different meaning than does “prohibited”; the former is an invitation to ethical self-reflection; the latter is a totalizing rule that demands to be enforced. Or put it this way: if by some quirky wobble in the fabric of the universe, my proposal were actually endorsed by the ABA, I would encourage a birder who gets scolded in the field for using playback to respond by sticking his tongue out at the nag and blowing him (or her) some raspberries.

    “I predict it will create more strife between birders in the field, rather than less.”

    Well, I hope you’re wrong about this. Alas, you might be right. But I would say two things, by way of response. Firstly, principled disagreement need not lead to strife (and in fact, principled disagreement can be salutary). Secondly, and more importantly, the first sentence in the ABA’s code of birding ethics says “Promote the welfare of birds and their environments”. I would hope, then, that promoting the welfare of birds would not necessarily “create more strife between birders in the field”. But if it does, I side with the welfare of birds.

    And btw, I easily concede that its possible that playback causes no harm to birds in the field. I doubt this is true, but again, I easily concede that it might be. But since the science on this appears to be inconclusive, I would say that it’s obvious that we should err on the side of caution and the welfare of birds.

  • Jeff Gordon wrote:

    “I realize blanket prohibitions (or endorsements) are comforting to some but I generally find them of little use in dealing with the complex, often messy realities of living on Earth.”

    I agree with this, of course, but I do want to be clear that my letter-to-the-editor does not argue for a prohibition (blanket or otherwise) against playback. “Discourage” and “prohibit” have markedly different meanings. A culture discourages people from all manner of foolish behavior that it doesn’t prohibit, e.g., watching too much tv, drinking too much, smoking, ad infinitum. I would discourage playback (again, genuine science notwithstanding), not prohibit it. And by the way, the ABA doesn’t have the temporal (or even the moral) authority to prohibit anything, so talk of prohibitions in this thread is off the mark.

    Finally, President Gordon rightly points out the risks of totalizing ethical schema. I’d like to also mention the dual risk, i.e., of shying away from hard ethical questions because totalizing solutions aren’t at hand.

  • I once asked a former chair of the ethics committee to clarify what the “rare in your local area” meant. I asked because someone was using tape to lure in the Social Flycatcher at Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park in south TX several years ago. I admonished the person for doing so b/c the code says we shouldn’t and received an extremely snippy response. Anyway, the chair said the Social Flycatcher case was fine and that the code was not referring to vagrants. That would not have been my interpretation at all, and I need the wording needs to be cleaned up to remove any ambiguity.

  • Where I come down on playback is that it’s an issue over which we must exercise judgment. I agree with David Sibley that in terms of what we can include on lists we report to ABA, this falls in an entirely different category–what is countable due to birder behavior–than what birds are countable. And that creates a bad mess, in my opinion, because birders who have the least sense of honor would be the ones most likely to both use playback excessively and report those birds regardless of the rules.

    One point I’d like to make that I haven’t read about here is in regard to the very first sentence in the ABA code: “Everyone who enjoys birds and birding must always respect wildlife, its environment, and the rights of others.” “The rights of others,” in my mind, includes the right to go birding without birders getting in one another’s faces about perceived bad behaviors. Based on the contentiousness of issues like playback, getting close to birds for photographs, and keeping reasonably quiet so others can also enjoy birds, a lot of people are very strongly opinionated on one or the other side of these issues, and the tone of comments here and elsewhere says these opinions are growing stronger. People in general have become not just more self-righteous but louder and ruder about it. So it seems to me that we need to hammer out ways that are appropriate or inappropriate to communicate with other birders in the field with regard to correcting one another’s behavior.

    I do believe that there is a place for some judicious playback in birding, but am closer to the end of the spectrum that says not at all than to the end that says anything is allowable. But if birds drawn in by playback are truly not countable, then either someone has to police this or report other birders to ensure that submitted lists don’t include birds attracted by playback, or as I said, the birders with the least respect for the rules will end up with an actual advantage. And I’ve yet to figure out a polite and effective way of telling others to shut up or to stop using playback–I’ve seen these evolve into pissing matches where name calling starts getting crazy, either in the field or on listservs afterwards. Anyone want to tackle this? The rude behavior on both sides is, in my opinion, taking a toll on birding itself.

  • I should add that although I’ve been keeping lists since the very first day I went out to begin birdwatching, I just don’t submit them to ABA or the Minnesota or Wisconsin ornithological societies. I’m not competitive. But I like having rules about what is countable. Birding at its best can be a fun competition, and publishing these lists can draw in new birders as well as provide satisfying entertainment for anyone who enjoys it. I think the ABA code of ethics is extremely important, but think it should serve as guidelines for us individually, not as actual rules, because I don’t think it makes sense to appoint referees, umpires, or police to judge one another’s behavior. The countability of species based on their presence on the ABA list and state list does not require birding police to arbitrate decisions like enforcing the code of ethics would.

  • Actually, much of the anecdotal information we have about whether playback is harmful is specifically about vagrants and the pressures dozens or hundreds of acquisitive birders have on them.

  • And again, even if we want to discount the value of individual bird life (something I most decidedly do not!), what happens to an individual vagrant also affects the birding community at large, both in terms of our reputation (when the Montrose Harbor Burrowing Owl was chased by birders right into the talons of a hungry hawk) and in terms of other birders being able to see the bird at all. I see the issue of playback for vagrants to be pretty clearly black and white, but on the opposite end of what you do.

  • The trick to that “drop in the bucket” theory is that when a population is already being affected by huge issues, small cuts have a much larger affect overall than those same small cuts to a healthy population. I liken it to a person with AIDS. When the immune system is already so compromised, even a tiny injury can cause death.

  • Al Schirmacher

    Let us not overlook the value of well understood, well communicated rules of engagement in community.

    A personal example. I rarely birded in federal wildlife refuges until moving to Minnesota. I was ignorant of playback rules in NWRs until three years ago. Therefore I freely used playback when observation or pishing alone failed. Most significantly, I used – or allowed usage – on well attended field trips. No one commented. No one intervened. I learned of the rules (laws) while reading a pamphlet, after 17 years of birding. Frankly, my behavior has changed, and I empathize same on field trips.

    Well written, agreed upon rules – shared in community – do not affect everyone. But they do have impact. ABA rules impact my behavior, and I’m not even a current member (cost reduction reasons alone). Let us certainly continue to discuss, refine, change, for birds’ and birders’ benefit.

  • Bob Fisher

    Like Al, I believe that peer pressure and education are critical components in changing human behavior. This suggests to me that a carefully crafted code of conduct (perhaps a better term than code of ethics?) for birders, coupled with consistent efforts to communicate that code to the birding world at large, are both important to the future of birding. An increasing number of people are taking up the hobby, because of digital photography, access to digital field guides, the growth of eBird, etc. Reaching out to those newcomers, young and old, in a non-confrontational manner, reminding them that what’s good for the birder /lister in pursuit of the hobby is not always what’s good for the birds, should be an integral part of the organized birding community.
    Should we increase outreach to manufacturers of birding equipment, optics, etc. , enlisting their help in spreading a code of conduct more widely? Somewhat (but not completely) tongue in cheek, do we need a birders version of the Boy Scout/Girl Scout oath?

  • It’s hard to believe that everything that could be said on this topic has not already been said, but I thought I would give my two cents worth. Listing aside, if the use of playback is truly a question of “ethics”, then each person will interpret what is fair and honorable, and even that may hinge on who is present at the time, or the temptation of the moment. What this discussion emphasizes is that there is a set of standards and even expectations in the general sense, no matter what shape the rules might take. I like David Sibley’s generalization, that what we do should “minimize our impact on birds”.

    The ABA doesn’t have to “discourage” the use of playback. With the exception of “rare in your local area”, I disagree with J.D. Phillips on his view of the “ambiguous” nature of the current guidelines. The word “limit” implies a thoughtful and conscientious approach to the use of this technology. It doesn’t have to be quantified. It’s not a law, and there isn’t a court of justice. It has a lot to do with common sense, and a lot to do with one’s own personal code of ethics.

    I have recorded hundreds of bird songs, but have never felt the need to use playback in order to record them. I stopped presenting workshops on “Calling In Birds” (after 2 spring sessions), because I didn’t feel totally comfortable doing it, and I didn’t think I was giving the right message to those attending, by using playback for this purpose. In neither case, would I have been violating the ABA’s Code of Ethics, but I have felt that disturbing the birds unnecessarily was not warranted. Each person has to decide the boundaries of his or her own code of ethics, even within the ABA guidelines.

    This discussion brings to the fore the fact that there are standards and even expectations, and the word will spread, just by being showcased here. Education is key. It promotes good citizenship, just as it does with other social issues. It can’t be legislated, but it can influence behaviour for the better. Whether it’s the use of playback, or even the taking of photographs, and again this is not quantifiable, but maybe our guiding principle should be that we “minimize our impact on [the] birds”.

  • idbirds

    I just came across this blog post and image, “Wildlife Photography Do’s and Don’ts”, from the Philippine Bird Photography Form, but it really applies to birding and general nature viewing as well:

    In short:
    (1) Keep Your Distance
    (2) Be Patient
    (3) Don’t Harass
    (4) Learn Alarm Calls
    (5) Don’t Separate Parents and Offspring
    (6) Don’t Encroach on nests and dens
    (7) Leave Breeding Animals Alone
    (8) Use Calls with Restraint
    (9) Leave No Trace
    (10) Educate Yourself
    (11) Animal’s Welfare First

    This is the code of birding ethics I believe the ABA should adopt.

    Brooke Miller
    Los Altos, CA

  • Richard Hubacek

    It was Ted’s fault.

    Look how he drove the conversation to a possible “Code of Birding Ethics” change. He probably knows what gets ABA readers excited. So…63 comments later here I am in a very dusty blog to add the “only” comment on “Green Birding”.

    For several years I have been surveying shorebirds in Mendocino, CA for a group called, “Save Our Shorebirds(SOS)”. They are attempting to document the shorebirds that migrate through and Winter in this little section of Northern California. They educate people on the impacts of human disturances on shorebirds in California State Parks.

    I was excited to see the, “The Green Big Day: Less Driving, More Birding” article in the July, 2012 issue of “Birding”. It got me thinking how I bird. I’ve read many books on the science of climate change but the really scary ones are about the future of the planet. The trip to my survey point was 33 miles round trip. Was all that driving helping the shorebirds I was surveying? I looked for alternatives. A check of the local transit schedule showed that by using the bus and my bike, I could reduce that mileage by 23 miles. I used that option all last Summer. It worked so well that I bought my first ever bus pass. They claimed that I was a senior which means I get to ride for half price. I save 3 to 4 dollars each time I did a survey. It worked so well that I’ve decided to do an experimental year to see how many birds I can find in Mendocino County just using my feet, bike, and the MTA. So far its 136 species with 288 miles saved.

    I propose a change to the ABA’s, “Code of Birding Ethics”. Section 1 states, Promote the welfare of birds and their environment”. I would argue that Big Years, Months, Days, and driving many miles to list that “rare” bird does not promote the welfare of birds or their environment. I would like to add a Section 1(e) which would state something like, “all birding should be done in the most ecological manner possible”. I know that’s vague but it might get people thinking about how they bird.

    In an effort to promote this new section, I propose have your “listing” site have some method of showing this ecological factor for Big Years, Months, and Days. I would suggest “bird per buck” but others might have a better idea. My idea is taken from the appendix of Kenn Kaufman’s, “Kingbird Highway”. By adding an ecological factor we will have an opportunity to evaluate the “Big Year” for what it’s worth. Maybe “lesser” is better. Wouldn’t it be nice if the “obsessives” were chasing Kenn Kaufman’s record instead of Sandy Komito’s. Of course you would have to add a cost of living adjustment.

  • Ted Floyd

    Here’s a recent scientific paper, “Simulated Birdwatchers’ Playback Affects the Behavior of Two Tropical Birds,” by J. B. C. Harris and D. G. Haskell, that I think may be of interest:

  • Kelly Colgan Azar

    The Economist is currently publishing a series of articles entitled “Unreliable Research” on the amount of research that cannot be reproduced. There are references in the second of the series, Trouble in the Lab, that pertain to this discussion. Studies should be read critically and in their entirety before concluding they have anything to add to the debate. I strongly recommend reading the Economist’s series.

    Regarding playback, while it is certainly easier for the homo sapiens involved – and we’re designed to favor ease – birds know better than we do what’s in their survival interest. If the bird you wish to see doesn’t display itself for photographs or ticks, it isn’t in its survival interest to do so. That’s all there is to it. It’s the bird’s call.

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