Recently I received an e-mail from a local birder expressing concern that Corey and I have been playing tapes to attract Virginia Rails too much. A few e-mails were exchanged and the discuss was cordial. But it did get me to thinking.
What danger is there to birds? So I asked the wise and powerful Google. Does it do harm to call birds by tape? The first site that popped out? It was a FAQ on whether or not if you find a dead bird, did it die of West Nile… Not exactly what I was looking for. Onto the next one… Still no luck. After some searching, a daring, rebel birder posted a similar question on a forum. He got the same varied responses I have, which can be boiled down into two groups, a) Why not do it, there is no solid evidence that playing tapes harms birds, although most people agree it might be best to lay off during the height of the nesting season and b) the verbatim reporters of birding ethics. The ABA, local clubs etc. They sound as dry as the rules they are repeating.
But lets try and look at the facts and we find there isn’t much. Almost no research has been done on the subject. I e-mailed a Biology Professor at Green Mountain College in Vermont for his personal input and he couldn’t put his finger on any specific research.
The bottom line is birds communicate with each other, by using tapes I am mimicking nature by playing the part of a territorial bird to get a response from a similar territorial male. Usually I play the tape a few times, the bird responds than usually shows itself. Upon seeing me there playing the tape and not a fellow bird, the bird often retreats back from where it came, happy I wasn’t a rival and I happy to see the bird. Now the only danger I see in this situation, is if in that brief moment that the bird reveals itself, a hawk swoops out of nowhere and takes the birds. Of course in my opinion if the bird was dumb enough to show itself in the first place (unlike the 27 others that stayed in the brush/reeds) it wasn’t going to last long anyway.
Many big day competitions such as the World Series of Birding or the NYC Birding Challenge are very clear about the use of tapes, a resounding NO. I believe that is to keep things fair, if you have 10 teams in a swamp and one of them is using tapes it is quite possible that the other teams will check off those species without actually hearing them. It makes sense in that situation.
So do I think there should be limits to using tapes to call birds… Yes. Birders should not use tapes in heavily birded areas, especially if there are other birders around. This is to prevent confusion more than anything. However if you are in a quite spot, I have no trouble using tapes no matter what the season. Use common sense. If it doesn’t seem like a good time, you probably shouldn’t be doing it.