Why Photographers Should Reconsider Using Playback in the Field

Playing audio clips of songs and calls is a common tool for getting better shots, but it can also be detrimental to birds and their chicks.

For the majority of us bird photographers, our passion is fueled as much by our desire to create beautiful images as it is by our love for birds. We go to great lengths to get our captures: We wake up before dawn, camouflage ourselves, sit awkwardly for hours, invest in expensive equipment, and, increasingly, rely on technology to assist us. 

Among the tools that many photographers use are apps that feature recordings of bird songs and calls (called playback when used in the field). Playback works by using audio snippets to coax a bird closer into view. Sometimes we might use the bird’s own call to mimic a competitor, and other times we may use that of a predator to spook the bird. Photographers often rely on these tricks to get an unobstructed shot, capture an image of a shy or elusive species, or document interesting behaviors. But as handy as using playback can be, it’s also becoming clear that it could have a negative impact on the very birds we aim to celebrate.  

Because of this, beginning this year, the Audubon Photography Awards will exclude any photos or videos of a bird taken with the aid of playback. Research on the impact playback may have on birds is ongoing, but as new findings emerge, it is clear that the practice can be disruptive and even detrimental to certain species. By taking this stance, Audubon hopes to raise awareness about the issue and also discourage playback as a regularly used tool in the field.

This new policy signals an important shift in the world of photography and one that should give all of us photographers pause. Trying to get that perfect shot often leads to behaviors that can harm the very subjects that we love, so we should all take time to educate ourselves on the legality and evolving ethics around playback. Let’s look at some of the clear situations when you should refrain from using it in the field. 

When and Where Playback Should be Avoided  

Where It Is Illegal: In many areas, such as national parks and national wildlife refuges, the use of recordings is illegal. Other preserves may have vague language or seasonal changes in their policies, so it is up to the photographer to confirm whether playback is permitted. This often means stopping by the front office or desk to ask. If the area is unmanaged and there is no specific rule against using playback—which is the case in many locations people bird—you should consider the potential impacts listed below.  

When It Harms Nesting Birds and Nestlings: Refraining from using playback during nesting season is imperative. There is mounting research that using calls of predators (such as a hawk or an owl) or a competitor (a same-species call that triggers a territorial response) during breeding season is harmful. The birds may be drawn away from their nests to confront the predator or the perceived challenger. This can distract the birds from other important parental duties, cause them to burn vital energy reserves, and leave eggs or chicks vulnerable to predators waiting nearby for just such an opportunity. One recent study found that repeated use of playback resulted in House Wren chicks weighing significantly less due to playback-induced fear. 

When It Poses Danger to At-Risk Species: There are increasing numbers of bird species threatened or endangered in our world. Using predator or competitor playback in the presence of these species should never be done. Additionally, playback should not be used to call in any rare vagrants that might be in the area. Similar to nesting birds, by flushing these already stressed species into the open, you are making them more vulnerable and interrupting their rest or foraging for food.  

Where Others Might Use Playback: Using playback in frequently birded areas or in photo-workshop settings only magnifies the problems outlined above. Imagine a bird that is repeatedly called in throughout a day, every day, for weeks on end. Think about the energy demands that puts on the bird, and the interruption to its daily rhythms and important life processes like feeding or tending to family. 

When It Can Impede Research: In bird research areas, playback is often used by scientists for banding birds or retrieving geolocators to download tracking data. The use of playback by others in these areas can make their jobs much more difficult. “Certain species will hear so much playback, they won’t respond well when researchers attempt to capture them,” says Jennifer Tyrell, a Master Bird Bander with Audubon South Carolina. It can be tough to know if an area is being used for research, but if you are visiting a managed park or sanctuary, you can at least check at the front office for any signs or to ask a staffer. 

These are just a handful of the reasons why photographers should reconsider their use of playback in the field. Some photographers will argue that the use of bird calls is much less harmful than many other human activities or that there are correct or ethical ways to use it for photography purposes. It’s true that, when used judiciously, it presents a very small problem in comparison to the environmental devastation and climate changes that birds now face. But even though most photographers are likely using bird recordings sparingly, with birds already facing so many natural and human-induced stresses, it might be time to reconsider our use of playback at all when photographing our wild subjects. 

This doesn’t mean all those audio apps on your phone are now worthless, though. Instead of deleting them, consider reframing how you use them. They can still be great aids to help you connect with birds and deepen your understanding of individual species. Using bird recordings to learn songs and calls can be an invaluable asset when you are in the field; it can help you quickly locate target birds while you are walking or driving along. I also find that it improves my patience if I know what birds I am hearing around me. It even helps me pinpoint areas where I want to shoot based on what species I am hearing. 

Curbing or fully stopping your use of playback might take an adjustment, but you can take pride in the fact that you have done your best to not disrupt the bird’s natural behaviors. To me, this is one of the greatest skills that any bird photographer can develop, and it leaves me with deep satisfaction. Our avian subjects bring us immense joy, enrich our lives, and help us connect with the natural world. In this spirit, most of us hope that by sharing our images our audiences will come to appreciate the birds as much as we do. And that means also making sure we are capturing them and their behaviors as authentically and conscientiously as possible. 

Kelley Luikey is a South Carolina-based photographer who focuses on resident and migrating birds. She is an advocate for ethical photography.