The use of tapes

Wayne C. Weber contopus at
Sat Mar 16 10:09:47 PST 2002


I think Gene Bullock is bang on in his comments about the use of tapes
to lure birds into view. By and large, the use of tapes probably
causes little if any harm to birds in areas that are sparsely birded,
such as most of the Pacific Northwest. Where it can become a problem
is in heavily-birded areas and with some species which are especially
sought after by birders. The use of tapes is also prohibited in some
National Parks and, I believe, in Arizona national forests-- whether
or not that is justified.

The use of tapes first became an issue, I believe, in the 1970s with
Elegant Trogons in Arizona. Trogons respond strongly to tapes, and the
number of birders using tapes to try to find them apparently began to
affect their breeding success. The use of bird tapes was subsequently
banned in the Coronado National Forest and, I believe, in other
Arizona National Forests.

Gene gives the example of Mourning Warblers in Massachusetts and
Mangrove Cuckoos in Florida as cases where tapes are known to have
caused disruption to breeding birds. Another example that I am aware
of is the Swainson's Warbler at one location near the northern edge of
its range. There is scientific evidence that the frequent use of tapes
by birders affected the breeding success of birds at this locality.
The use of tapes is also banned in Kirtland's Warbler breeding areas.
(However, this is a bird that has a loud song and is usually easy to
see-- no need for tapes.)

In general, I think that the use of tapes should be avoided in the
case of threatened and endangered species, or other species that are
known to be especially sensitive to disturbance. As Gene says, birders
should police themselves in the use of tapes. However, in our area,
the use of tapes probably causes no more than a temporary distraction
to birds 90% or more of the time.

Like Gene, I have encountered individuals who decry the use of tapes
"with almost religious fervor", and with little evidence for their
point of view. Maintaining a bird feeder probably causes more harm to
birds than using taped calls, by concentrating birds where they are
vulnerable to hawk predation and to diseases like salmonella-- all for
the purpose of seeing birds more easily, which is the same reason that
tapes are used. Repeatedly flushing an owl in the daytime, and
exposing it to mobbing and (depending on the species) predation, is
more harmful than using tapes, and something I have seen birders do a
number of times. Habitat loss is infinitely more damaging to birds
than the use of tapes. Let's keep the use of tapes in perspective
compared with other things that can be harmful to birds. Any attempt
to get a close look at a bird, or activity that results in flushing
birds, can cause as much or more harm than the use of a tape.

I use taped calls in my area mainly to detect the presence of
secretive species like Virginia Rails and Poorwills, which would go
unnoticed most of the time without the use of tapes. I agree with Mike
Patterson and David Allinson that it's more challenging and more fun
to try to track down a new species that is calling without the use of
a tape (although one may be trampling the vegetation and disturbing
other birds during the search.) On the other hand, if I were within
the range of a species that would be new for my life list, and I had
only this one chance to find it, I would have no qualms about using a
taped call, so long as it was not a heavily-birded area or a species
known to be sensitive.

The subject of "to playback or not to playback" has caused acrimonious
discussions on Tweeters more than once before. Let's maintain some
balance on this issue, and keep in mind that for 99% of bird species,
there are many bigger obstacles to survival and successful
reproduction that the possible (and mostly undocumented) negative
effects of tape playback.

Wayne C. Weber
Kamloops, BC
contopus at

----- Original Message -----
From: Gene Bullock <bullockg at>
To: <tweeters at>
Sent: Saturday, March 16, 2002 9:18 AM
Subject: The use of tapes

> Tweeters,

> The use of tapes is a very controverisial and highly emotional issue

in some

> quarters. Frankly, I see little difference between using tapes and


> vocal imitations to attract target birds. Used with discretion, I


> tapes are relatively harmless and often the only way to see some shy


> secretive species. Virtually all professional birding guides use

tapes. So

> have most veteran birders, although they discreetly avoid talking

about it.

> The problem arises mainly in heavily birded areas where tapes are

used to

> excess. In western Massachusetts, mourning warblers appear to have

> abandoned certain nesting areas because of intense harrassment by


> armed with tape recorders. I've met birders who rail against the

use of

> tapes with almost religious fervor. I think they are overreacting.

On the

> other hand, the excessive use of tapes to attract such birds as the

rare and

> endangered mangrove cuckoo in the Florida Keys should cause some


> The professional guide's dilemma, of course, is that people have

paid a lot

> of money to see this bird, and they hate to disappoint. I would

hate to see

> tape recorders categorically banned because I think they have their


> But like so many issues involving individual behavior, their use


> judicious restraint and sensitivy. I hope that's not too much to


> Gene Bullock

> Poulsbo


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