‘The birding community’ hates birds: Pishing and Tape-Luring – Part 1

In Fiji’s Pacific Harbor, tourists hold their noses as dive boats pour hundreds of pounds of discarded fish scraps into the ocean.  This “chumming the water” as it’s called brings in sea life from miles around, including various kinds of sharks.  And sharks are precisely what the tourists have paid to see.  Yet biologists the world over state time and again that this constant activity will no doubt have an impact on normal shark behavior, and that the conditioning will lead the sharks and other wildlife into a downward spiral of abnormal activity.  But one thing the tourists pay for is results, and unloading all that smelly refuse into the tank definitely brings in the sharks.

But was has this to do with birds?  That answer rests in two activities: pishing and tape-luring.  Together or apart, they represent the birding community’s equivalent of chumming the water.

According to Wikipedia, a pish is “an imitated bird call (usually a scold or alarm call) used by birders and ornithologists to attract birds (generally Passerines).  The action of making the sound is known as pishing.  This technique is used by scientists to increase the effectiveness of bird diversity surveys, and by birders to attract species that they might not otherwise see.”

Before I get to tape-luring, let’s stop here for a minute.  Birders use pishing to attract species they might not otherwise see.  In other words, birders use this method to interfere with a bird’s natural behavior simply because the birder wants to check off a name on a life list, not because they want to observe avifauna in its natural beauty and behavior.  That’s important to note.  And while I won’t delve into active and passive birding in this post, I will cover it later, and at that time I’ll remind you of pishing and tape-luring, and their arbitrary use by birders who have no sound scientific reason to employ the methods.

As for tape-luring, this method rests comfortably alongside pishing but relies on technology as opposed to pursed lips.  Tape-luring is the use of prerecorded bird calls as means to bring birds out of hiding, such as a mating call, a threat call or a challenger call.  By it’s very definition, it’s nothing more complicated than pishing with batteries.

I will admit the lack of centralized, coherent research on these practices leads many to believe that no word means a good word (i.e., if science hasn’t definitively blasted the practices, they must indeed be acceptable and even endorsed).  Yet the issue is not a lack of research but instead a seemingly endless array of information tucked away in disparate places.  Where ornithologists and biologists use these measures for scientific study, pishing and tape-luring are clearly spoken of as highly effective methods.    Using the flawed logic of “if something is not expressly forbidden it is allowed,” the birding community has seized upon these acceptable scientific tools and made them an everyday part of their birding practice.  And therein rests the problem.

In 2001 Professor Daniel J. Mennill from the Biology Department of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, discussed a study involving black-capped chickadees which showed how tape playback impacted mating choices by females.  In essence, his findings suggested “that female black-capped chickadees eavesdrop on male-male singing contests and that the information females gain through eavesdropping plays an important role in shaping female reproductive decisions.”  Even more disturbing was that he found “that high-ranking males who lost song contests [against recorded songs] also lost paternity in their nests.”  And since “females prefer males who have a high-ranking position in the previous winter’s flock,” use of these methods in nonbreeding seasons could still influence mating and paternity.

The question of recorded sounds to lure avifauna for birders became a point of discussion on NEOORN, the e-mail discussion group on Neotropical bird biology.  When a question posted to the group asked for guidance on tape-luring and pishing in eco-tourism areas (the compiled discussion can be seen in this PDF), Dr. Jeffrey R. Lucas, a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Purdue University, said, “It is very common for us to instigate territory disputes in Carolina Chickadees (the birds that are the focus of almost all of our studies).  This is because responses that we elicit from one neighbor are usually reacted to by other neighbors.  So even if our playbacks, per se, are having no effect, the increased interaction between birds caused by frequent playbacks could potentially disrupt the social system. […] The point is that there are lots of ways to disrupt a social system through playbacks, and to do this in order to let some people see a rare bird seems a bit much.”

Dr. Bridget Stutchbury of York University, coauthor of Behavioral Ecology of Tropical Birds, offered this response: “I agree that playback should be discouraged, unless it is specifically for formal bird census and/or scientific research.  Recreational playbacks for birding can be harmful if done repeatedly to the same pairs of birds; and it’s unnecessary … ‘real’ birders will use their instincts and patience to track down the bird the natural way.”

Dr. Philip Taylor of Acadia University and Associate Chair of the Atlantic Cooperative Wildlife Ecology Research Network added that, “compounded by tons of people, or focused on particular individuals or pairs repeatedly, I’m sure that [tape playbacks] are disruptive or even detrimental.”

But this all sounds like professional conjecture sprinkled with scientific fact, right?  Besides Professor Mennill’s research, I mean.  Though no one would question the credentials of these experts, and no one would doubt their knowledge in this area, they all appear to be offering opinion—and no matter how much learning and expertise stands behind that opinion, posts in various birding forums discussing these remarks clearly show that “the birding community” mostly enjoys or is agnostic about the use of these methods, and many frown upon “purists” who would deny them their use.

So let’s return to the research: The peer-reviewed and published results (PDF) from the work of Professor Mennill and his team state that “two short playback sessions were sufficient to alter high-ranking, but not low-ranking, females’ perceptions of their partners’ status.”  Two short playback sessions.  Think about that.  The paper goes on to reveal that the impact of these encounters ripples through the community as a whole, a finding that supports “the idea that information may be transferred between individuals in a communication network rather than simply within a dyadic context [between two individuals] and provide a conceptual link between the attractive and repellent properties of male song where mate attraction and territory defense may be simultaneous functions of a common signal”—a finding that reinforces Dr. Lucas’s statement “that there are lots of ways to disrupt a social system through playbacks.”

Were we only discussing a single birder, perhaps the impact would be negligible.  But we aren’t talking about a single birder, nor even a few dozen or a few hundred.  In North America alone we are discussing many, many thousands of people.  For example, there are more than 1,600 people subscribed to the TEXBIRDS mailing list, and that list focuses only on Texas; also, at any one time more than 100 people are visiting and viewing the Dallas Audubon discussion forums, and those focus on Dallas and surrounding areas.  Accepting that not every birder is online and that not every birder knows of these resources, one need not be Stephen Hawking to extrapolate from those two examples precisely how large the birding community is on this continent, let alone around the world, and one need not be a mathematical genius to see how even a fraction of that number using these methods would equate to a very large group.

In closing, it is the last statement of the Mennill study with which I want to end this part of my discussion: “Finally, our results show that short playback sessions can have longlasting and far-reaching effects on individual fitness.”  Wait a minute!  How did we get from interfering with mating and social status to permanent impact on a bird’s health?  The simple answer rests in a single word: physiology.  Part 2 of “Pishing and Tape-Luring” will deal with research covering the health impacts on birds that stem directly from these two practices.

Part 2

[cross-posted to The Clade]

19 thoughts on “‘The birding community’ hates birds: Pishing and Tape-Luring – Part 1”

  1. I generally hold to the idea that if I can make the noise myself, I’ll do it. But if it requires technology, I won’t. This limits me to pishing and the occasional Screech Owl impression. But I try to use discretion when I do it. For instance, on a morning after a particularly cold night, I won’t pish or whistle as I figure that distracting birds from the urgent business of looking for food would have a clearly detrimental effect.

    As in all things, though, it’s possible to overdo it and we’ve all been in situations where we think birders are doing just that. I would hope some self-policing would be in order but with the proliferation of iPhones and birdJams and what have you, that’s going to be more of a problem. For that, I absolutely share your concern and I don’t particularly like judicious use of playback (though limited playback is something even bird researchers use to determine if a species is present or not).

    That said, I’d hesitate to place a value on birding for the “beauty of it” and opposed to keeping a list as a way to remember individual sightings. I think that’s an unnecessary distinction and runs too near setting up the strawman of the list crazy birder, which is a stereotype birders have been fighting for some time.

    1. I’ve never heard of birdJams, Nate. (Note to self: Why didn’t I think of that! I could be rich! Rich, I say!) The overdoing it concern is valid. It’s something I’ll cover as I have some surprising examples of behavioral conditioning due to the overuse of these methods by birders.

      On the strawman you mention, I do intend to cover the whole “life list” topic. I know the stereotype and its implications, and I also know there are various kinds of list keepers (I’m one of them). Though I have no intention of making everyone out to be the mad birder, the stereotype persists and sticks for reasons I’ve found to be discoverable and–I hope!–fixable.

      Truth in advertising: I keep a life list here on my blog. It includes everything: fungi, plants, animals and protists. I suspect it’s a tad different from the average list since it’s not numbered, not dated, doesn’t “roll over” every year, includes more than birds, and has entries shown as “unidentified” (basically, photographed faces without names).

      Oh, I’d absolutely LOVE to hear the screech-owl impression! In the wild is one thing, but I hear them close-up and personal at the wildlife rehab center where I volunteer. Wow! I giggled at the thought of someone trying to duplicate that sound…

      1. I understand the stereotype exists for a reason, and while it’s frustrating to be up against it all the time, over use of playback is something I think every single birder should be concerned about. There are obviously real examples of rare birds being taped out, the Buff-collared Nightjars in SE Arizona are a particularly egregious and sad example. So, I’m with you 100% there.

        In fact, I was in a situation just last week where some young birders and I were squeaking into a reedbed hoping to pull out a Sedge Wren or something and a group of three people came out an blasted a recording of the call right across from where we were. Annoying, and ultimately ineffective.

        My Screech Owl impression is good enough to fool a few first year warblers and the odd Screech Owl. I think it can be best described as a phlegm-y whistle. So, take that as you may…

  2. I’m also not a fan of playback, but I’ll admit to being a pisher. I don’t use it often, though that’s not because I consciously worry about its impact. I use it to try to draw out a bird that I know is present, but which isn’t affording me clear (or sometimes any) views. I’ll pish for about a minute at most, generally, and even then only for that long if the noise has attracted other birds but not the individual in question. If it’s not working, I give it up quickly. The birds clearly perceive me as the threat the alarm is being made over, and I move on when I’m done (besides, I’ve seen – or not – what I wanted). I almost never pish at a bush just to see if anything’s in there; I don’t know why my curiosity demands more to be sated in one situation but not the other.

    I’d be interested to know of any studies that examine impacts of pishing like for the tape playback. My suspicion would be that aside from interrupting their foraging it would have little long-term impact in places where I’m the only birder. Popular birding trails would be another matter, however.

    I can do screech-owl, too (descending whistle, but while exhaling break your breath into rapid, short chunks by closing your throat, as though you were saying “oo-oo-oo-oo” – requires a strong diaphragm), but I rarely do because I don’t find it all that effective. Dan likes to throw in the occasional whistled “hee-hoo!” of chickadees with the idea that warblers often travel in flocks with them, but I don’t know if that has any effect beyond just the pishing, either.

    1. I do indeed have the research on pishing and its impacts, Seabrooke, albeit from the physiological and predation impacts and not necessarily the societal and mating impacts the tape-luring discussion shows (though the scientific implications are easily drawn to the latter, which I’ll include). I’ll cover the impact on physiology and fitness next, and I’ll cover the predation aspect afterward.

      I’m SO tickled by the screech-owl idea! The very thought tickles me, but only because I hear it in an enclosed room where that’s the overwhelming and ear-piercing sound that overrides everything else. Somehow in the wild it seems doable–‘approachable’ is maybe the term I’m looking for there because in close quarters I can’t imagine a human producing anything comparable.

  3. Personally, as a person who is mainly interested in observing and listening to natural bird behavior as opposed to seeing the greatest number of species in any particular birding excursion, it never occurs to me to pish. Having no such technology,I don’t play recordings to lure birds, though I would rather like to have something like an iPod with iBird on it to carry the Stokes’ recordings with me, which I might use to compare a heard bird call to if I didn’t recognize it, my memory for bird songs not being anywhere neaer as good or as long as I’d like it to be and birds not always being willing to be visible when singing.

    I detest being on a birding trip with someone who’s always pishing (scares more birds away than it attracts, I think) or playing recordings, although there have been occasions when a bird did respond with curiosity to someone’s playing a recording and I confess I was happy to get to see it.

    I think it’s horrid the way some people pish or play recordings (or “chum” in various ways), thinking only of themselves or their customers and not at all of the welfare of the birds or wahtever. Reprehensible indeed! Worth castigating them for!

    That said, Jason, I continue to take issue with the way you tar all birders/birdwatchers with your title “The birding community hates birds” and your references to “the birding community” as though it were some homogeneous mass.

    Have you ever looked at the ABA’s Code of Birding Ethics? Apparently not. You can find it here: http://www.aba.org/about/ethics.html

    Allow me to give you some relevant quotes:

    “Code of Birding Ethics
    1. Promote the welfare of birds and their environment.

    1(b) To avoid stressing birds or exposing them to danger, exercise restraint and caution during observation, photography, sound recording, or filming.

    Limit the use of recordings and other methods of attracting birds, and never use such methods in heavily birded areas, or for attracting any species that is Threatened, Endangered, or of Special Concern, or is rare in your local area;

    Keep well back from nests and nesting colonies, roosts, display areas, and important feeding sites. In such sensitive areas, if there is a need for extended observation, photography, filming, or recording, try to use a blind or hide, and take advantage of natural cover.

    1(d) Stay on roads, trails, and paths where they exist; otherwise keep habitat disturbance to a minimum.

    Group Leader Responsibilities [amateur and professional trips and tours].

    4(c) Be an exemplary ethical role model for the group. Teach through word and example.

    4(d) Keep groups to a size that limits impact on the environment, and does not interfere with others using the same area.

    4(e) Ensure everyone in the group knows of and practices this code.

    4(f) Learn and inform the group of any special circumstances applicable to the areas being visited (e.g. no tape recorders allowed).

    4(g) Acknowledge that professional tour companies bear a special responsibility to place the welfare of birds and the benefits of public knowledge ahead of the company’s commercial interests. Ideally, leaders should keep track of tour sightings, document unusual occurrences, and submit records to appropriate organizations.

    Please Follow this Code and Distribute and Teach it to Others”

    Not as strongly worded as I’d like when it comes to pishing and playing recordings, but you can see that the stated ideal is far better than the reality practiced by some individuals. Many of us live up to these ideals. Why don’t you quit all this stereotyping — it’s your penchant for dramatization and exaggeration coming into play again and it weakens your argument when you do that. Getting on a soapbox is one thing — sounding like a tent revival preacher accusing everyone there of being sinners is another. Burying a caveat that “I have no intention of making everyone out to be the mad birder..” in the reply to a comment by N8 does _not _ suffice to temper the stereotyping you achieve in your title.

    But you’re right — there are egregious examples of abuse of birds by people (I hesitate to call them birders — I wouldn’t think of them as being worthy of the name). People do lament these cases in posts on texbirds. Here are a few to make you cry, or even want to strangle some people! But please note that the posters (part of your “birding community,” Jason) are objecting to such behavior!





    Throwing rocks at a tree to make a sleeping owl open its eyes?!!!!!?? Ye gods!!! That’s much worse than pishing or playing tapes. More to get on a soapbox about, Jason.

    BUT IT’S NOT THE ENTIRE BIRDING COMMUNITY THAT’S AT FAULT!!!!! It’s a bunch of idiots giving us a bad name. Just like the couple of idiot hunters that shoot down migrating Whooping Cranes, or the idiot guys that throw their beer cans and bottles out of their car windows, or….. It’s not all hunters or all guys who do those things — just some of them.

  4. I only pish yellow-headed blackbirds, and that’s only because it’s so much fun to try and make that noise.

    I sympathize with Betsy’s complaint about Jason’s strongly worded title, and the birders I know well are as horrified at this sort of behavior as Jason is. But I have to come down in his favor given that as a natural historian who is fairly well-acquainted with the birding world, i see no evidence of any move to change birding culture other than a few documents here and there. Yes, there are plenty of ethical birders of good will, but as long as they keep their opinions politely to themselves they may as well not exist for all the change they make to birding practices writ large.

    Consider the parallel with Off-Roaders. There are many ethical, conscientious drivers of off-road vehicles. There are documents available if you look for them that spell out codes of ethical and non-destructive ORV use. And yet you very rarely see these ethical ORVers criticizing their vandalistic, unethical brethren and sistern. Instead, they tend to attack people who point out the damage done by off-roaders, complaining that we’re using language that’s too strong and that we’re ignoring the existence of the good guys.

    Speaking as a far-from-expert birder myself, I think it’s our responsibility to dissuade other birders from using these techniques, and pointedly. It’s the only way people will change their behavior.

    1. (Laughing my bottom off at your explanation for pishing yellow-headed blackbirds!!!)

      Thank you, Chris. I admit I was quite intentional in choosing an inflammatory and inclusive title. Had I said “bad birders hate birds” and carried on in that direction, few of the critical voices in the birding community would have taken notice; all “good birders” (self-proclaimed and in reality) would have ignored the content as being meant for someone else. The most profound change comes from within, hence I’ve chosen to challenge the whole as opposed to only the malignant part.

      I think it’s time for “the birding community” to stand up and take notice. The only way to do that is to poke the beehive and let them swarm. I hope through all the buzzing that those who can make a difference will stop and think, will stop and take notice of an outsider’s point of view, and from that disruption will make a move to ensure real change takes place.

  5. Funny that you mention the ABA ethics, Betsy, as that’s something I’ll be including in a future entry. It also plays into Nate’s comment above about “self-policing” within the community which, as I mentioned in my previous response to you, has to do with my use of “the birding community” in quotes: an indication of a whole, not pieces and parts, and a title the birding community needs to deal with as it’s how they’re seen from the outside.

    I mentioned in the introduction that individuals and groups can be quite different; what I’m addressing here is the whole, especially because birders of every stripe and every level of experience have a duty to live up to the outside view and take action against the stereotypes, the negative connotations, and the science that speaks negatively of their in toto activities. Please believe me when I say that I know a lot of “birders” who are anything but typical–you included–but I also ask that you believe that an outside view of all birders is the only view most people have (since most people aren’t birders, and that outside view is very bad and very damning).

    Yet back to the ABA ethics: I’ll demonstrate with sound scientific research that the ethics are not strong enough for birders. The use of pishing and tape-luring are unassailable for scientific purposes, yes, but for general use I think you’ll find the science to be quite contrary to that weak ethics recommendation. I ask that you be patient and know that your concerns are valid and will be addressed–it’s just that I can only complete and publish so much of this research at one time. Unfortunately, you’ll find my “penchant for dramatization and exaggeration” to be backed up by sound, extensive science in this case (and please see my previous response to you on that issue as I’d really like to hear your insight on what I think you might be referring to).

    Let me finish with this: if the birding community doesn’t want to be lumped in with a harmful “birding community” connotation, it behooves the birding community to act in its own defense, to take definitive action against those who sully its name, and to prove, endorse, support and encourage methods that are contrary to the view so many people have from outside the community. Those views will be covered here in time–as I work through this series–and I welcome all feedback and debate, even heated discussion, from those on the inside who want to speak against how the community is viewed from the outside. (Yes, that means you, dearest Betsy! Don’t leave me!)

  6. Wow! Some strong views, all of them valid, I’d say.
    It was the word “chumming” that caught my eye first.
    I was unaware of pishing and playback being so widespread and indiscriminate.
    But I’ve long been an outspoken critic of imprinting and there seems to me similarity in these practices.Dependance feeding is widespread here in Australia.

    (I can come close to the call of a Ninox novaseelandiae, but not close enough to fool one!)

  7. Hmm… I’d always thought of pishing as pretty harmless (and mostly ineffective!) and something I thought all birders did to some extent to draw a skulking bird out for a better look.

    Calling a bird in with a recorded song is something else; I agree. It’s interesting to me that most field trip leaders here, local people I mean, don’t use any such technology, but at bird festivals I’ve been to in other parts of the country (for *paying tourists* as you might call us) playbacks are used. And responsibly so for the most part, I’d say, but that’s probably questionable according to your research.

    I saw Kirtland’s Warbler as a result of a recorded song… of course I was glad for the opportunity to see that bird, but I knew in my heart that the person leading the trip was wrong to use a recording (repeatedly) on that bird’s breeding grounds, in the height of breeding season.


    It comes down to putting a bird’s welfare above our need to see them; it’s as simple as that. The technology is available (and companies like birdJam remind their customers of their obligation for responsible use) but without education about the possible detrimental effects on birds, we’ll continue in our selfish ways.

    Bravo to you Jason for the reminder of what I know to be true.


  8. i feel like a fool when i’m pishing. i think the only thing it accomplishes is laughter and an enthusiastic round of applause (what is the sound of one wing clapping?) from all of the unseen birds in the near vicinity, effectively cloaked in their surroundings, the ones nearest me laughing the hardest because they’re 1 foot away from me and they know i still can’t see them. “there’s the big, dumb human trying to sound like one of us again. so is anyone here a hollow aluminum pipe with asthma? nope. didn’t think so. HAHAhahaha!!”

    i was trying to imitate a barred owl one day, and after the first two seconds, i stopped, mortified at the thought that the trees, ferns, birds, squirrels, asphalt, and fallen logs all heard that pitiful noise that came from me, and i hung my head in shame, shuffled home, and crawled back under the covers.

    the one thing we as humans are good at, is thinking we know everything. and armed with that “knowledge,” we believe we are in control. nature is a far more complex system than we can possibly imagine or hope to understand, and it should humble us.

    the mentality of needing to see that bird — right now, on my terms — is just a product of these modern times in which we’re fed anything we want at the touch of a button or the swipe of a finger…information, products, images, sound, video…instant gratification. so when i want to check another life bird off my list, why would i want to *wait*?!? i’m a busy guy. i’ve got things to do, people to see, movies to download. you mean just sit there and *wait* for the bird to come out?!? research its behavior so that i can better predict when it might be most advantageous to view it in its natural state? forget that!! so i pull out my tape recorder (or my iPhone, as it were), and play back its call. “tweet!” rustle, rustle. hop, hop. there he is…check! and i’m on my way.

    that, to me, is completely missing the point of observing nature. how do you enjoy that? how do you connect like that? how are you supposed to feel like you accomplished something?

  9. Very interesting discussion Jason. I read part 2 first and figured I should read part 1 before jumping into the fray.

    I am glad you are bringing up this practice as I don’t think it is taken seriously by many birders. I am lucky to be surrounded by many older, experienced birders who are always concerned with the welfare of the birds they seek. Even so, I never considered pishing to be detrimental to birds until I read your Part 2 of this series.

    I must admit to playing a recording once or twice, on rare occasion, to call up a bird that I had never seen. The strange thing is that I always wondered “what am I saying to this bird?” Obviously, very few people would know what any specific song played would mean to the bird being sought.

    I was cautioned long ago to never play bird calls during breeding season for any reason and to always use discretion whenever considering using a recorded call. But no one ever warned me about pishing! After all, Pete Dunne wrote a book on “The Art of Pishing.” He did, however, in his book, speak to “when not to pish.”

    I agree that the “birding community” needs some self-policing as Nate stated and maybe the subject needs to come up more often when discussing birding techniques among all bird enthusiasts.

    I think “dug” hit the nail on the head. Humans are under the delusion that we are in control and are smarter than all other species on the planet. Talk about arrogance!

    A little humility would be a start. Treat other creatures with the respect due all living things and you will most likely do what is right by them.

    Obviously the best way to observe birds and all creatures in nature is in their natural, unaltered state. Doing what they do every day, unfettered by human interference.

    Research birds, learn their habits and why they do what they do and go where they go. Knowledge is power. Learn from nature and put that knowledge to work allowing you to find birds and get closer to them without disturbing them.

    I know after reading your series, I will think twice about the consequences of all my actions while on the birding trail.

    1. Thanks, Larry. Well said. It’s my intent to get the data out there so people will discuss it and think about it and maybe evaluate what it means given current guidelines, practices, trends and so on. I can’t change the world, but hopefully when I’m through with this series at least one or two people will have taken a moment of pause to think about things a tiny bit differently.

  10. i really appreciate jason’s concern regarding audio-playback and pishing. that is one of our concerns too back here in palawan,philippines..we are lobbying through the local government to ban the use of audio-playback/pishing to lure birds particularly those who are in the commercial birdwatching tour business, we observed a decline on birds occurence in heavily birded areas compare to adjacent area where birds can be observe even without the use of those devices.

  11. I came across this discussion while doing web research on whether or not playing recordings to attract birds was somehow harmful or stressful to the birds; reading this now confirms for me that this may be the case. I started thinking about it because of the recent growth of bird song applications on mobile devices. I was also curious after seeing this interview with Mitch Waite, developer of the popular iBird app for the iPhone:
    http://www.tuaw.com/2010/02/23/macworld-... -mitch-waite/
    at about 6:25 into the interview he boasts of playing songs from the app to attract birds, and I wondered if that was inappropriate for a birder to do…

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