American Birding Podcast



Sibley’s Ethics of Playback

Despite the unceasing advance of technology into our personal lives, birding, at its core, is a pretty pastoral avocation. That hasn't stopped birders from rightly taking advantage of useful advances to improve their birding experience in the field and at home of course, and this intersection of technology and the welfare of birds has spawned some interesting and essential debates about how we, as birders, interact with birds.

Chief among these concerns the issue of playback, and with portable audio players in the hands of millions of birders and little in the way of hard science to determine the real effect of all these iPods and Smartphones, it's unfortunate that there isn't a clearly articulated and considered code of ethics for their use. 

Into this void comes field guide author David Sibley who has presented on his blog perhaps the most comprehensive and fair-minded opinion on the use of playback I've ever seen with a recent post, The Proper Use of Playback in Birding.  If it's not the final word, it's a strong place to start.

There is no debate that playback (playing a recording of a bird’s song) is one of the most useful tools in a birder’s struggle to see birds in the wild. Birds that might otherwise be too shy to come into the open can be lured into view by the sound of a potential rival. Whether this trickery has any significant impact on the birds is not so clear. Most of the debate has focused on the ethical question of whether or not playback should be used. In this post I assume that it will be used, and instead focus on suggesting some best practices to allow birders to enjoy the birds while minimizing the impact of playback, on birds and on other birders.

I'd be curious to hear other birder's takes on it.  My personal opinion, which in no way should be considered representative of the ABA organization or staff, is that playback can be a valuable tool if used wisely and conservatively.  I have used it sparingly for difficult to observe birds and I'm careful to abide by the stated rules of the site and my own intuition erring on the side of caution.  But too many of us have been in situations where it has been abused, and coming to some sort of agreement on the proper time, place, and practices for its use seems like a no-brainer going forward.

Anyway, David's guidelines are excellent.  I highly encourage readers to check this post out.