How to Use Birdcall Apps

Apps that play birdsong can be a terrific tool for birders and bird photographers—as long as they’re used responsibly.

The proliferation of birding apps, which play birdsong with just a tap of the touchscreen, has been wonderful for attracting new birders to the hobby. But the apps have also increased exponentially a controversial practice: the use of playback, or playing a recording of birdsong to lure a bird into view.

Playback is one of the most powerful tools in a birder’s struggle to see birds in the wild. It will arouse the curiosity of any species at any time of year, but it works best on territorial species during nesting season. Birds that might otherwise be too shy to come into the open can be attracted by the sound of a potential rival. Whether this trickery has any significant impact on the birds is not so clear.

Fundamentally, birding disturbs birds. Everything we do has an impact on them. But in some situations playback can be less disruptive than other methods of attracting birds, at times even less disruptive than sitting quietly and waiting for a bird to show. Proponents argue that playback reduces the need to physically enter and disturb a bird’s habitat and, unlike pishing, targets a single species.

Of course, others argue that playback causes birds unnatural stress, and at least one study shows it can cause a male to lose status with its rivals and mate. Researchers generally agree that the effects of playback are poorly known. So like other birding techniques, playback requires care and “field-craft.” You need to be aware of, and sensitive to, the habits and behavior of the bird you are trying to lure.

When using playback in the field, here's what not to do:

  • The epitome of bad playback etiquette is the birder who walks around with a device continuously and loudly broadcasting sound, or the photographer who sets up a device on continuous playback and waits for the bird to fly in. This is ineffective, unnecessary, and the kind of practice most likely to harm birds and disturb other birders.
  • Playback is prohibited in many parks and refuges. It is also illegal to disturb endangered or threatened species. Respect the rules.
  • Any potential negative impacts of playback are more likely to occur in areas with a lot of birding pressure, so avoid playback entirely in those locations. 

And here’s how you can responsibly and effectively use playback:

  • Plan carefully and understand your quarry. If you have already heard or seen the bird, consider those locations when deciding where to play audio. You must be in (or very near) the bird’s territory to get a useful response.
  • Choose your spot and set the stage. You should play the recording from a location that offers the bird a comfortable approach through its preferred habitat, and also has openings, edges, and/or prominent perches where it will come into view.
  • Ask your fellow birders if anyone objects to using playback. If not, announce to the group that you are about to start playback (just quietly saying “playback” will do), and hold the device up above your head so other birders can see at a glance the source of the sound.
  • Begin by playing the recording quietly for just a few seconds—for example, just two or three songs. Your starting volume should be lower than the sound you imagine the bird would produce. Then stop, watch, and listen.
  • If there is any response, try very short snippets of song after that, even stopping the recording after half of a normal song, to try to tease the bird into the open without posing a serious challenge to its self-esteem.
  • If there is no obvious response after 30 to 60 seconds, play another 15 to 30 seconds of sound. Remember that the bird may respond by approaching silently, so watch the vegetation carefully on all sides, and also watch and listen for a response from neighboring males.
  • If you still don’t detect any response, play the recording again, watch, wait, and repeat. But don’t keep this up longer than about five minutes, and resist the urge to finish with a prolonged, loud barrage of song.
  • Wait around, or circle back after 10 to 30 minutes. Many birds will remain silent in the immediate aftermath of the playback, and then begin singing vigorously minutes later. Males in other territories might do the same.

Adapted from “The Proper Use of Playback in Birding,” by David Allen Sibley. Read the original version here.