The Ethics of Playback

The New York Times recently ran an opinion documentary centered on the ethics of using playback while birding. It’a fun watch, and does a nice job of laying out the various positions on the complicated practice. The playback protagonist is a guy known as Birding Bob, and I’ve never encountered anyone in the field who is such a playback enthusiast. He seems genuinely motivated by a desire to see birds and show them to others. But he also enrages people.

You can find plenty of opinions about playback and birding on the web: here are David Sibley’s thoughts. There are studies of the impact of playback on birds, some of which are discussed here.

The ultimate playback setup, able to draw in warblers from miles away

What are my views? I’m not a fan of playback for reasons well-explained here. But I’ve done it. The difference between when I’m fine with it and when it bothers me is mainly about motivation and moderation. The best use was when I was taking some non-birders for a walk around the marsh, and was able to get a Least Bittern to call out from the reeds, and a Marsh Wren to pop into view. The crowd was delighted. I also used it in our backyard one afternoon when a Northern Rough-winged Swallow was perched on the electrical wires behind our house. I played its call, and the bird flew in and hovered and circled feet above our picnic table. Such close encounters are magical. 

When playback is deployed to provoke a rare vagrant to pop into view, or really to add any bird to your fill-in-the-blank list, I’m much less enthusiastic. It’s too much like dumping trash behind the Yellowstone lodge and then bragging that you saw a bear for me. Such garbage-induced bear shows used to be hugely popular.

I recently saw a use of playback I hadn’t seen before. Down at the ocean jetty at Playa Vista, a couple of folks with gigantic zoom lenses on their cameras were taking pictures of an Eared Grebe as it swam feet away. They were playing an Eared Grebe call loudly on repeat as they did so (I’m guessing to keep it close). As with the use of playback to find rarities, I wasn’t a fan of this use of playback. Not sure if it was the selfishness or the laziness or the silliness of it. It didn’t make me mad, but I did chuckle.

I have no coherent theory of the ethics of playback, and I’m no absolutist. But if you find yourself turning to playback regularly, it’s worth reconsidering why you’re doing it and how much you’re using it.