Friday, June 05, 2009

Attracting Wildlife: Part 2- Using Bird Songs

Baltimore Oriole responds to a birdJam call

I appreciate the thoughtful comments on my previous post and agree that keeping clean and protected feeders is not a disservice to birds, as long as the welfare of the bird or animal is put first, not the interests of the person attracting them.

I have purchased a couple of different CDs of bird songs in an effort to learn to identify birds I may not see. It is not easy to use a CD in the field and some of them would not track back to a specific bird, but rather to a family of birds. That would require me to listen to all the ducks, for instance, to find the one I wanted to hear.

I read about birdJam, a program which organizes bird songs on an Apple iPod. I had an under-used iPod Touch and decided to download the program. It is very, very user friendly and with the touch of my finger I could see each bird and hear all its different songs and calls. I had no external speakers besides my earphones and I did not plan to use the unit to call birds.

Last month I went on a group hike led by Neil Taylor. He used external speakers attached to his MP3 player to attract a Red-bellied Woodpecker that was nearby. He explained that the player should be used briefly as not to stress the bird. I read more about attracting birds this way and decided to get some portable speakers for my iPod. The iMainGo is a powerful portable speaker that is easy to carry on a wrist. I picked one up for $20 at Circuit City.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak (male)

Armed with my high tech gear, I went to the river and tried the unit out. No one else was around that evening and I could hear many birds singing in the trees. I knew Baltimore Orioles were around so I tried that call first. Immediately, an Oriole looked down from the treetop. I then tried the Rose-breasted Grosbeak song. Again the response was fast as a pair of them appeared on a tree beside me. I noticed they looked very alert and somewhat alarmed and the female had some nesting material in her beak. It seemed they were concerned about another bird in their territory and I felt badly that I had presented a false challenge to their nesting area. That ended my experimentation. The unit did work, but bird songs are not just pretty melodies;- they are a language. There are risks to calling birds during nesting times. They may leave a nest unattended and predators can take advantage of this.

I saw this Philadephia Vireo in a tree and a pair of Brown-headed Cowbirds nearby. (I did not attract it by sound). An empty nest is an opportunity for the Cowbird to lay an egg for another bird to raise.

Mike Burrell, an experienced birder and researcher from our area had this to say...

As far as bird song playback goes. It certainly stresses a bird. But, so does pishing, squeaking, etc. The difference between playing bird song for photography and pishing is that pishing might stress a bird for a few seconds, while playing a song would probably be for several minutes. I think that season doesn't really matter, you are stressing the bird no matter the time of year. What does matter to me is basically that the bird isn't repeatedly stressed. For example, I wouldn't play a tape for a bird at Point Pelee in spring, but playing a tape for a Yellow Warbler in your local park once a season is reasonable. Again, if you pay attention to the bird, you should be able to tell you are stressing it. In all reality I think anyone who wants to play recordings should ask themselves if one person getting a photo of a bird is worth causing it stress. Doing bird research obviously has a purpose which we weigh as more important than the possible consequences of your actions. If birders are educated about the bird, they will make good decisions...

Brown-headed Cowbirds

The birdJam site has an informative article in the ethical use of the software here. "Some birders using playback keep on playing the songs until the bird lands right in front of them. We believe that's going too far."

I listen to the bird songs in my car through the external speakers on the way to work. ( I don't like earbuds) I don't expect to use the unit on a regular basis to attract birds, and if I do use it in the field, I must put the welfare of the bird ahead of my own interest of seeing it in the open.


  1. I'm not sure about using bird song as a call in. Almost like the little boy who cried wolf. I can certainly see it as a good tool to learn the bird songs for recognition and ID. Is there ever a balance with all this amazing technology used in nature?

  2. Ruth,

    I enjoyed reading about your experiment. Very interesting. I would love to learn to identify more birds by their song, but wouldn't want to stress them. I feel bad that I was stressing the robins nesting under the awning when I went into the yard. Now, the babies have learned to fly and the nest is empty, so am glad that they made out all right in such close proximity to humans.

    Enjoyed my visit, as always. Beautiful photos.


  3. Wish I had your high tech camera.

    I used to see orioles in Singapore. they were pure yellow.

    Here I feed my sparrows and other boring coloured birds.


    Ann :)

  4. I've been tempted by birdjam and probably will download it soon. I liked the honesty of your experience--their song is a language and we aren't privileged to speak it. But, I like the idea of easy portability and being able to hear the song myself and then verify an identification. Interesting, thoughtful and informative, thanks.

  5. Attracting birds via the iPod: amazing.

  6. Again, I can see both sides of the debate. I mean, how wonderful that this software exists to encourage people to learn more and to be able to ID birds. The more interested people are, the more dedicated they become to preservation. However, having said that, there is responsibility that goes along with it as well. An interesting debate indeed.

  7. Great experiment! I like the challenge of finding birds without any devices to lour them in. Seeing the birds are amazing, but there is something to be said for the the thrill of the hunt. All this technology has taken away the true art form of birding. I enjoy birding with just my binoculars. I don't know if would be completely satisfied with my find if I had cheated using a device.

  8. THis is a very informative post.In no way should a bird be stressed but just being in the nesting area may do the same.As birders and photographers we need to be careful in all our actions.

  9. I'm enjoying hearing all of the opinions here regarding calling birds in. I've been on several guided trips where birdjam or tapes have been used to varying degrees. Much has to be taken into consideration. For example, locally there was an unusual bird listed on our MN listserv. Many birders were looking for it daily. If each birder called it in once, that would mean it was being called several times a day. Not good. However, a guide calling in a bird using a call only once, in a very remote area where no on else would be calling it, seemed all right. (never during nesting season).
    Another guide suggested that a male on territory, called in briefly, and then left alone, might seem to have successfully defended his territory.

    I have mixed feelings. Calling in birds,to me, is not just for a photo oportunity. It's a chance to see that bird sing which is the best way to learn bird song. It's also a chance to watch and learn and have a greater appreciation for that bird.

  10. Hi Ruth....this is so interesting. I personally, have never even thought of using anything to attract birds, apart from feeding them in my garden. I like to think that is helping them, when food is scarce.

    I think it is a great idea to use the recorded birdsong for cannot always see the bird so it would be a great help....

  11. Wow, the things (techie) that are available right now - the portable speaker - I'm going to look into that. thanks for sharing all these educational things about birds and bird songs! The orange bird in the first pic looks so cute.

  12. I agreee . . we need to be careful during the breeding season!

  13. I try to avoid it during breeding season.I've seen people do it over and over-driving the poor birds crazy.-It seem that it should be okay in moderation but maybe it should be avoided in popular birding areas.

  14. Great information..I sometimes have used a bird call ..but very rarely..
    I have been on bird walks where they are used a bit too much..
    I think we should all try to be a bit more considerate in areas that are highly trafficked with birders...and keep it to a minim.

  15. Hi Ruth,
    I'm with Lynne on this one. I have the birdJam software loaded on my iPod and have on occasion used it to call in a bird, but usually only when I'm by myself as I know other folks have some issues with its use in the field.

    I have found, however, that it's very useful for me to have along and play (quietly) when I'm having difficulty trying to figure out the bird I'm hearing. This was also a very popular device at my Master Naturalist class when non-birders would ask about a particular bird call and I could play different ones for them to help confirm what bird they had been hearing in their backyard or in the field.


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