The Rap on Apps: Could They Be Harming Birds?

Overusing apps may be bad for birds.

Hoot, hoot, hoot! That could be an owl—or just a phone. Tech-savvy birders can have at their fingertips the calls of more than 700 North American species, simply by downloading one of a number of smart-phone apps. Yet if overused, the artificial calls—long employed by ornithologists but now available to the masses—may be harmful to birds by distracting them from activities like feeding and nesting. In fact, they are prohibited in national parks or for attracting endangered species, for example.

The apps don’t tend to come with instructions, which means naïve birders may subscribe to poor playback etiquette. “Some people overuse the apps and drive local birds and other birdwatchers crazy,” says Greg Butcher, Audubon’s director of bird conservation. If a call is overplayed, birds may become overly excited and quickly fly back and forth, says Chris Wood, the project leader of Cornell University’s and Audubon’s eBird, an online database of avian observations. Flitting about wastes the animals’ energy and also means birders might not get a good look at their target species.

When used properly, though, apps can serve as an excellent tool, experts say. John Fitzpatrick, director of Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology, often plays calls to attract birds for educational activities. When one appears, Fitzpatrick calls back a couple of times and then stops. “The bird actually wins that little battle” against the perceived rival, he says. So long as they’re not abused, Wood says, apps create a win–win situation for the bird and the observer. Encouraging a bird to come to you rather than tromping off path is often less damaging to the environment, Butcher adds.

So what is the proper etiquette for app-wielding birders? When in a group, check that others are aware and approve of using the technology, Butcher says, and make sure to limit the playing of the call in any given spot. On public land, find out whether recordings are permitted. “For regular backyard use, there are a lot of upsides,” Fitzpatrick says. “Entertainment, enjoyment, and education—all of which builds passion for bird conservation.”