To Playback or Not to Playback

Tulse Luper tulse at
Fri Mar 15 23:28:41 PST 2002

I am new to birding and am struggling with the issue of using taped calls to better view birds. Has there been definitive evidence that using taped calls can/does stress birds? What about other species that hear the taped calls?

This must be a real hot button issue down in Arizona! Now I understand why my requests for guides not to use tapes have been refused!

Robert Riedl
Bellevue, WA
tulse at
----- Original Message -----
From: Buteoreg at
To: tweeters at
Sent: Thursday, March 14, 2002 9:59 PM
Subject: An excellent reply (long - but worth it)

Hi Tweets,

This was on the Arizona/New Mexico chat group today. I thought it was very well written, and while i don't agree with *everything* he says, I do with much of it.

good birding,

Jim Flynn
buteoreg at
Federal Way, WA

Begin forward ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------
"Note: Like many of you in this chat group, I recently received a
request from from a college student working on a senior thesis
project at UNM for "anecdotes" of birders, particularly listers,
guilty of "'loving birds (or their habitat) to death'." In light of
the recent post by Helen Snyder regarding cavity nest demolition by
the US Forest Service in the name of safety in Cave Creek Canyon of
the Chiricahua Mountains, I think my response to this woman may be of

Dear Barbara,

I must tell you that the language in which you couch your request for
incidents of birder misbehavior seems to me to show a bias against
birders that is, in my 33 years of birdwatching, not warranted, and
that is, I feel, entirely inappropriate for a serious thesis topic.
I hope I am completely wrong about your motives, but to rely on
"anecdotal" material renders any conclusions you may come to
completely subjective and open to misconstruction. Worse, your
conclusions may be used by management agencies as justification for
implementing policy decisions or statuatory regulations that reflect
pre-conceived management prejudices, regardless of the content of
your conclusions or any disclaimers you may make. I know because this
actually happened to me.

I have, indeed, witnessed people in pursuit of birds whom I
considered in violation of either the birds' or the landowners'
rights. Usually they were attempting to photograph or to hunt those
birds. These people would have to be classified as photographers or
hunters--not as true "birding enthusiasts."

In my eight-year-long study of Elegant Trogons from 1977-1984 I saw
many instances of photographers whom I believed caused nest
abandonment through prolonged observation of nests, usually from
distances far too close to the nest. While there are federal
regulations against disturbing nests, to my knowledge no photographer
has ever been cited under these regulations. And let's face it, to
prove a case against a photographer there would have to be
round-the-clock nest surveillance by state or federal officers that
would intrinsically constitute nest disturbance.

In 1983 the US Forest Service specifically requested me to look for
instances of birders' use of taped playbacks of trogons resulting in
nest failure. I found none, though I tried very hard. I even wrote a
paragraph in my book on Elegant Trogons (1980, reprinted 1994) to
discourage the use of taped playbacks to attract trogons. What I
came to realize through the course of my study, however, is that
trogons--and for that matter, other birds that use vocalizations to
set territorial limits and to avoid (usually) direct physical
conflict--are well-adapted to hearing challenges from others of their
own species. In fact, they may need it to stimulate them to commence
their breeding cycle. Here in Southeastern Arizona an Elegant Trogon
in "good" habitat--or an Elf Owl or a Buff-breasted Flycatcher or a
Red-faced Warbler--can expect to hear territorial vocalizations of
its own species during the breeding season throughout the day (or
night in the case of most owls). This is a normal condition of
existence for not just Elegant Trogons, but for nearly all birds.

I found all cases of Elegant Trogon nest abandonment that I
personally knew about during my research years were owing to
"abnormal" disturbances. In 1983, under contract to the USFS, I
documented nest failures that I attributed to the operation of USFS
grader doing "routine" road maintenance in front of a nest tree all
day long, another nest that may have been abandoned in a campground
on the 4th of July weekend owing to prolonged boom box and
all-terrain-vehicle use, and several cases where photographers
staking out nests day-after-day almost certainly caused trogons to
forfeit those nests.

I found that pairs of Elegant Trogons could seemingly withstand
anywhere from a minimum of about four hours to a maximum of three
days of photographic disturbance before they abandoned their nest.
Casual, opportunistic photography by birders carrying cameras
apparently had no impact. Once again, I must stress that I could
never say beyond a shadow of a doubt that "serious" photographers
were resposible for any given nest failure. Perhaps a raccoon
climbed the nest tree at night. Perhaps the eggs were sterile or the
parent birds lacked experience. Birdwatchers using tapes--less than
1/100th of the number carrying cameras--never subjected individual
trogon pairs to this sort of unrelenting, hour-after-hour,
day-after-day pressure.

The result of my study was that the USFS imposed a ban on tape
recorder use in S. Fork Cave Creek in the Chiricahua Mountains, and
completely ignored the report for which they had paid. Photography,
of course, is still permitted.

We live in a "law-happy" culture. I used the example of photography
versus tape recording of Elegant Trogons to illustrate that point.
Unfortunately, too often statutory laws or newly-minted ethical
standards are ill-conceived and based upon preconceived bias. While
I assume this is not your intent, "studies" such as yours founded on
second-hand anecdotal accounts can, conceivably, give the rule-makers
an excuse to implement regulations that tend to discourage people
from becoming birders, either directly because they feel there are
too many restrictions, or indirectly because they may not care to be
associated with a group that practices such unsavory behavior.

Real birders tend to be sensitive, caring individuals who are, as a
group, not apt to infringe on the rights of other creatures with whom
they share this planet. Much sociometric research has shown that
birders are as a group better educated than the general population
and far less apt to ignorantly "in their listing birds
(or their habitat) to death." In general, the better the birder the
greater her or his sensitivity to an individual bird's spatial and
temporal threshold for observation. I am sure there are instances
where birders have, unwittingly, focused too much attention on
individual birds; but the birds are ordinarily far more mobile than
their human observers, and in 99.9% of all cases they simply fly away
if they feel threatened, or take other evasive action. Birds that
are so incapacitated that cannot escape unwanted attention are
ordinarily taken to rehabilitation facilities by birders that care.
Left to their own devices these same birds would almost certainly

Far more importantly, birders have fought for and been successful in
saving large areas of critical habitat for many species. A thesis
such as yours, where the anti-birder conclusions are seemingly
already foregone, will provide ammunition for those who would mandate
their preconceived prejudices. In reality, I suspect the rule-makers
are simply envious of the sweet exhilaration birding so obviously
brings to its practitioners. God, they'd love to cuff us about the
ears and hiss, "See, you're hurting the birds and their habitat by
enjoying birding just too much."

But that's not true. Birding enthusiasts, regardless whether they
list or not, have saved not just individual birds, but whole species
from extinction. Far from degrading habitat, their zeal has resulted
in the salvation of millions of acres and entire eco-systems. To
"pursue the idea that bird enthusiasts" cause harm because they need
better-enforced "birding ethics" is extremely repugnant to me.

Please accept my apologies if I have misunderstood your intent.

Rick Taylor

Explore the Living Museums of the World

2550 W. Calle Padilla, Tucson, AZ 85745
Phone: (520) 882-7650 FAX: (520) 792-9205
rtaylor at"

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