The Use of Electronic Bird Calls
My wife and I participated in an Owl Walk a few years ago as part of the Annual Eastern Shore Birding and Wildlife Festival at Cape Charles, Virginia. We were with a small group of birders being led by a well respected local naturalist. After walking a dark path for about twenty minutes without any signs of owl presence, the leader stopped and pulled out his iPhone and played the call of a Great Horned Owl. He was using the iBird South app which sounded very realistic.
To our great surprise and pleasure, there was a owl responding within a few minutes. He played the call again with the same result. Excited, we moved down the path in the direction of the answering owl, repeating the call every couple of minutes. Sure enough, the owl seemed to be getting closer and closer until the leader believed that we were less than 50 feet from the bird. That's when the crack of a branch and a muffled sneeze ended the excitement. The leader called "John, is that you?" The reply "Damn, I didn't know you were in this section." We had "called" another Owl Walk group.
Despite that experience, we all know that artificial bird calls can be effective at drawing a wide variety of species closer to the caller. Commercial turkey and duck calls have been available and used since the mid-1800s and there is evidence that native Americans used artificial calls as early as 6500 BC. Today, digital technology puts extremely accurate bird songs in the palm of our hand for virtually any species. There are even small speaker systems that can be used in the field to amplify these calls.
But is it right? More and more refuges and parks are banning the use of electronic calls, because they believe that it disrupts normal animal behavior. Those who favor their use point out that there's no proof that these calls cause any harm and in fact have favorable benefits. They also point out that pishing and mimicking are not banned which are similar methods of moving birds closer for observation and photography.
NOTE: It is a violation of the Endangered Species Act to use electronic or other sounds to attract any species that is listed as threatened or endangered.
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At times, I use my iPhone and an Audubon app to call birds and I have found it to be a very effective way to attract and photograph birds. I also use pishing, which can also be very effective. I learned both methods while on annual Christmas bird counts with very serious birders. I do not believe that when I have used these methods to attract birds that it detrimentally impacted their behavior, and I would not have gotten some amazing images if I did not use it.
Nevertheless, I believe there are times and places when such methods should not be used; for example, when there are other photographers or birders in the area who may find it disruptive and distracting to their experience. I also believe that the use of bird calls should be determined or regulated by the local officials, assuming that it would be based on the amount of people visiting the refuge, preserve, or park so as to limit the impact on the birds and visitors. As the saying goes, "everything is okay when done in moderation."
The response to the question of ethical use of electronic bird calls is difficult to address but I will say that “it depends”. Like so many things in life where moderation is reasonable but not a commonly or uniformly applied practice. Infrequent use of electronic calls may be reasonable but just like lease laws, compliance is by everyone without exception regardless of the circumstance. Although I have used a bird calls on my IPhone, I now try to moderate my usage. In the past I would use bird calls to get a head turn for a catch light. Now I just use a fill flash.
Certainly it would be wrong to agitate a nesting bird with a threating call of a predator. Likewise it would be equally wrong for several individuals to repeatedly try to call/distract a bird to the point where the bird would become disoriented as to discerning what was a real matting/distress call or just a birder of photographer.
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