Bird call playback, available on mobile apps, is disturbing birdlife and ruining the joy of birding

Using playback remains controversial, deeply dividing the birding community

Updated - July 22, 2022 11:55 am IST

Published - July 22, 2022 10:30 am IST

Birds such as th verditer flycatcher are very responsive to call playback

Birds such as th verditer flycatcher are very responsive to call playback | Photo Credit: Sahil Zutshi

“Louder… play louder!” yells a photographer, armed with a lavishly priced camera and a weapon-like telephoto lens. A collared owlet call blares repeatedly through a portable speaker.

Within minutes, a pair of verditer flycatchers and a handful of black-throated tits arrive on a rhododendron tree. The Himalayan black-lored tits follow. Soon, a cole tit, black-faced warblers, whiskered yuhinas, blue-winged sivas and a fire-breasted flowerpecker join the search party.

READ | Fake calls, bait food bring birds out of the bush

The paranoid flock frantically begins searching for the intruding predator. The tree is a lit firework. A curious blue-throated barbet arrives and watches the drama unfold. The photographer’s group is excited, but unsure what it is photographing. “Posting it on Instagram today,” declares one photographer, pleased with himself, while scrolling through his images. Presenting the catch on her screen, another asks the bird guide: “By the way, what bird is this?” The vibrantly dressed group, sorely sticking out in these surroundings, decides to move further down the valley to startle other birds.

Disturbing scenes

During a trip to all corners of Uttarakhand earlier this year, I frequently noticed scenes of aggressive and excessive call playback. I observed birdlife being disturbed by bird guides, photographers and birders. In fact, I continue to witness this across the country, including some national parks and sanctuaries, even where call playback is prohibited. The practice makes me question whether the Gordian knot can be untied as bird call databases are easily accessible on mobile apps. Demanding birders and photographers get upset if guides fail to show them their target species. “If clients are unhappy, it’s not good for business and there’s constant pressure,” remarked one guide.

The threatened cheer pheasant

The threatened cheer pheasant | Photo Credit: Sahil Zutshi

“The money that birding tourism fetches overrides ethics and bird safety. Once this stops becoming the sole consideration, perhaps, good birding behaviour will take precedence. A large number of people are still deeply interested in birds and their well-being. The more they speak up against poor practices, the better it is for birdlife,” says scientist, K.S. Gopi Sundar.

Deeply controversial

Using playback remains controversial, deeply dividing the birding community. Researchers have long used cautious playback to locate certain species, assist with surveys, understand habitat use and distribution, and decipher bird communication: all with the potential to assist conservation action. Worryingly, however, the degree to which call playback is now used, has, it would appear, become an essential tool to some. Gone are the days when a good old pair of binoculars, a field guide, and patience were all that was needed to enjoy birding. Wanting to instantly sight birds appears to have become the norm.

Ornithologist V. Shantaram believes that there is far too much emphasis on building personal checklists and sharing images on social media. “By using call playbacks, we are missing out on observing bird behaviour in their natural habitats. The original ethos of birdwatching is lost where one views birds after much waiting and effort,” he says.

‘Tweet’ with caution
Playing bird calls can be done in moderation for scientific studies, but never for commercial purposes, says V. Shantaram, ornithologist and director at the Institute of Bird Studies, Rishi Valley. “Bird guides play these calls for tourists who want to quickly tick birds off in their list. As bird calls are available online and can be downloaded, some serious birders also play them, as they want to add more birds to their lists.” To promote bird watching and citizen science, features such as the ‘eBirder of the Month Challenge’ are introduced. “On the flip side, these features promote a competitive spirit, leading some birders to resort to desperate measures like playing bird calls to have a bulky species list. These features are therefore better avoided,” says Shantaram. — Prince Frederick

Call playback is justified by researchers and enthusiasts in many ways, but it affects bird behaviour and nesting success of some species, at least in the short-term. Excessive playback has led to certain species becoming unresponsive, negatively impacting research and conservation efforts. “Famously, birds such as the critically endangered Bugun liocichla, have apparently stopped responding to playback as a coping mechanism. We simply do not know the impact of playback on lesser-known species and in remote areas. This is not a good situation given birding is increasing without a concurrent increase in ethical behaviour,” says Sundar. “Playback use is not restricted to enthusiasts and photographers. Ornithologists and birders often practise unsound ethics to ‘flush’ out rare species to add to their checklists.”

Raising awareness

With questionable practices being widespread, it wouldn’t be surprising if studies emerge suggesting playback does not have any negative impacts. Currently, the lack of sufficient scientific evidence that playback causes demonstrable harm to birds appears to be a convenient way to justify and continue the harassment of birdlife. What might not constitute harm scientifically, nonetheless, amounts to nuisance.

The black­throated tit

The black­throated tit | Photo Credit: Sahil Zutshi

Raising awareness on the issue and educating photographers and birders, especially the younger generation, on the ethics of birding and wildlife watching, is essential. Conservation organisations and local birding clubs being more vocal on the issue will reinforce good birding and photography practices. Forest departments must enforce bans on call playback more strictly, particularly in situations relating to certain species and during nesting periods.

It’s tough being a bird. The struggle to survive takes up all day. Populations are declining, compounded by habitat loss. Now, imagine being stalked by humans. The welfare of our feathered friends ought to be priority rather than furthering careers or personal records. If you fail to see a particular species or a ‘lifer’, perhaps your perseverance and patience to observe the bird in its habitat naturally will be more meaningful. Enjoying birding is a privilege, not a right. Being sensitive to creatures of the wild is a humbling experience, far more satisfying than Instagram and Facebook likes.

The writer is a conservationist and undertakes work at Mount Abu Wildlife Sanctuary.

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