Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Thoughts on Audio Apps

End of the line for this Sibley Guide (digiscoped).

A few days ago at Pheasant Branch Conservancy, I spotted a Sibley Eastern Guide to Birds floating in the creek. Well, it wasn't a lifer, as I already have a copy. My hunch is a birder set it on the bridge railing and inadvertently knocked it off. I, too, ditched my paper field guides recently, but they're at home on my bookshelf. I've gone digital for good. So far I've used BirdJam, iBird Pro, but my favorite is the Sibley Guide for iPhone/iPod Touch. There are plenty of user reviews of these apps on the web, so I'd like to focus more on the ethics of their use in the field.

As a field trip leader for Madison Audubon, I think these digital devices and apps are a wonderful educational tool for my participants. An illuminated image works extremely well in a dense woodland or overcast days, but the screens can be a little difficult to see well when it's sunny outside. However, the main issue some birders and naturalists have is the fact these apps contain audio recordings of songs and calls and can be played loud enough for birds to hear. On the opening page of the Sibley app it states: "Please consider the birds and other birders before playing audio recordings in the field." Anyway, there have been a few recent articles on the interwebs about how these devices are upsetting birds.

Last year during spring migration at Pheasant Branch, I experimented with warblers using BirdJam on my iPod Nano with a portable iMango speaker system. Common Yellowthroat and Yellow Warbler are the only warbler species that nest along the creek corridor, so I was careful only to play songs and calls to birds that were very unlikely to nest at the conservancy. Also, I didn't loop the songs to play them continuously. My conclusion? When playing a track or two, most warblers seemed oblivious to it.

There were notable exceptions. I got an incredibly aggressive response from a Northern Waterthrush when I played a version of that species song and a Mourning Warbler became pretty agitated, too. Having hits and misses put questions in my mind. Was it because Dane County isn't far from their breeding range and the bird's "nearly home" hormonal cycle would make an aggresive response more likely? Was it a specific quality of the recording I played? Are these particular warbler species more inclined to respond to recordings in an aggressive manner?

Thinking back to Donald Kroodma's book about birdsong The Singing Life of Birds, I recall the chapter on neighboring Song Sparrows with regard to song “type matching” versus “repertoire matching” and aggression level response. When playing recordings to warblers, I noticed often times the version of a song on my iPod was discernibly different from what that particular species typically sings in my geographical location (even when considering alternate songs). For example, I wonder whether or not a Chestnut-sided Warbler song recorded on breeding territory several states away might be different enough not to be recognized by the same species in Wisconsin. Or, is the subtle difference precisely what agitates it because it's deemed an intruder. The truth is, I was unable to predict how any particular bird would respond to recordings and I don't think I want to become an expert in this area.

When used responsibly and respectfully, these digital audio apps are helpful to birders inexperienced with identifying birds by ear. For example, this spring a Cerulean Warbler was singing a fair distance away, but a birder I was with was unable to hear the song. Though I emulated and described it, she still couldn't get on it. When I played the song (quietly) via my iPod, the next time the warbler sang she instantly picked up on it. I've done the same during some of my field trips this spring with similar "ah ha!" moments. To be sure, there is a dark side to this technology. I know of a photographer who blasts bird songs so loud and repeatedly that target birds have attacked his camera lens. The poor bird perches at the end of a twig and sings over and over responding what it perceives as territorial challenger.

What's been your experience with the use of song recordings in the field?

© 2011 Mike McDowell


  1. I hesitate to use taping myself because I'm too much of a novice to distinguish between the type of song and to know what birds are typically present in different areas. I used taping once somewhat by accident. I was playing a track of a Brown Creeper so I could verify what I heard and he responded. But I frequently make the pishing noise, so I guess it's just lower on the spectrum of disruptive noises.

    Although I don't use taping on my own, I've always taken advantage of events where bird guides are playing songs to flush out some life birds for the group.

  2. I don't use playback while birding, mostly because I haven't had an easy-to-use rig ala a smart-thing. I have, however, done a number of playback experiments in the course of my research.

    I think the main points of the seattletimes article are completely spot-on. We need to be aware that these playbacks have an effect on birds. You are communicating with them, in their medium, so expect a response. The same reason they work is the reason we need to be careful with them.

    That said, think of all the song migrant wood-warblers produce as they move north. Many of them are not on territory yet. Any other Tennessee Warbler, for example, will be hearing a lot of other Tennessee Warblers. Adding a little playback to that probably isn't going to register in the long run.

    However, if you do playback at one territory every other morning as part of your guiding, you might be ticking the bird off, especially if you're in the middle of his territory, and that can have documented effects (as noted in the articles!). If you do it a lot on the border, it's conceivable he'll eventually decide you're a neighbor and quit showing up. Thus, the trick will really be to use only a little playback, and on different individuals, to avoid setting off long-lasting physiological effects.

  3. This captures my attention but I've personally only used the audio resources as references in the field and without amplification. On one occasion someone "I wasn't with" used a recording to lure out a Sora and even then, in my relative novitiate state, my thought was that it wasn't "fair" in some sense. Today I'm much more likely to be recording them than playing them what they already know.

  4. I have a droid and use I-Bird Pro. I personally think it is a great tool. As I get a little older and my hearing is slowly going I have found that all sounds are a bit different than they use to be. Including many bird songs.When I moved to North Carolina I was out birding with a group and they kept hearing Hermit Thrush. I swear I didn't recognize the call. I must have listened to that bird sing for over twenty years. I thought it was some geographical anomaly. They sing so differently here I thought. When I played my IBird I then realized what had happened. The bird now sounded differently to me. Sure enough two weeks later and a hearing test I was told I had diminished hearing ability. Things sound a bit different to me. So playing my likely birds before going out into the field or reconfirming what it is I thought I had heard makes me more confident. It's not easy starting over. I have and still find I have some difficulties. Today I was in a field listening to a bird that seemed vaguely familiar but I couldn't put my finger on it. Not until about an hour later I was in the car and did a play back of 6 songs did I figure out what I had been hearing. It was a Swainson Thrush doing half his call. So when used for training or retraining ones ears it is a wonderful tool. But playing a birds song continuously and repeatedly when in the same territory well then I do have a problem with that. Even over phishing can really do harm. So with improvements in technology so comes more responsibility for the user.

  5. If I use playback now, it's with the Sibley app using the iPhone's build-in speakers. I find the app much easier to manage than all the sound recordings I've loaded myself.

    As to when to play, I try not to do it very often. I almost never do during "routine" birding. I will to verify an unusual species, and I have in order to draw out a hidden bird when leading a field trip. But I will not in locations where it could be overused. For instance, in south Florida recently I really would have liked to get a Mangrove Cuckoo for my ABA list. But I did not use playback at a particular location, even though I knew the birds were present, as that is a heavily birded location. But another birder directed me to an alternate location off the birding radar, so to speak. I didn't hesitate to use playback there. It didn't work, unfortunately, but that's how it goes.

    And thanks for the link, by the way.