This page is a chapter in the book Techniques and Educational.
I decided to write an article after a recent discussion on the forum. The only thing every birder and ornithologist agrees on regarding call-playback is that it is a very controversial topic.

Call-playback; it is the use of an audio device to play the ‘target’ birds call in order to attract it to obtain a view or a photograph. The call of a predator is also sometimes used to attract birds, which intend to mob it. I have seen this method used very successfully in South Africa, the call of a Pearl-spotted Owlet was used and it attracted a range of small insectivores.

Researchers/Ornithologists, commonly use this to survey the numbers/density of vulnerable species. An example of this is the monitoring of the critically endangered Black-eared Miners in Gluepot, for this reason birders/photographers are asked not to use call-playback of this species (notices are placed in the hides) as they stop responding, this makes it hard to monitor the population.

Etiquette dictates that tour guides make sure all the members of the tour group approve of play-back being used, before they do so. Tour-guides tend to go back to their ‘secret’ spot to show paying guests the target species time after time. This selective/sparing use of playback didn’t appear to have any ill effects on the target species on tours I attended. Proof of this in my opinion is that these resident birds are still present and responding year after year. The tour guides (which are bird lovers themselves) depend on these birds for a living and wouldn’t continue using playback if it was driving the birds from the area.

The increasing availability of bird calls to amateur birders and photographers has resulted in a massive surge in the use of call-playback. We all know that call-playback does interfere with bird behaviour; it is the long lasting effects we as bird enthusiasts are concerned about. There is not much scientific research (especially in Australia) on this topic. For anyone interested the following very good, comprehensive, unbiased article lists some research and is very informative

I do use call-playback, these are the rules I follow

1. Never use playback in restricted areas, these include some national parks (always check with the rangers before using call-playback in any NP) and some private areas like Kingfisher Park Bird Watching Lodge.

2. Do not use it to attract vulnerable/endangered species especially in areas frequented by birders. Using call-playback can result in these species not responding to calls thus making them hard to survey.

3. Only use short bursts of playback to attract your target species and stop as soon as they respond.

4. Limit use in the breeding season, especially in birds with a complex family structure like wrens.

5. Squeaking and phissing works better to attract many species in my experience. Birds tend to investigate the strange noise rather than dart in and out to ward off the intruder (I have experienced this with Yellow-billed Kingfisher in Iron Range NP). I have found this very effective for wrens, pardalotes, thornbills and honeyeaters.

6. Stealth and stalking allows the birder/photographer to observe the bird behaving naturally.

7. Try to use the calls of females or groups of birds, rather than territorial males. This will not drive dominant males from their territory and will be much more effective in getting them to stay for photographs.

8. If in the presence of other birders/photographers always check if they are ok with you playing calls before doing so. Some birders and photographers object to this and their ethics should be respected.

9. Do not play the calls of raptors and owls, there is reports of them attacking birders that do so. A guide informed me that he is aware of Powerful and Rufous owls doing this.

10. Be careful not to expose the birds you are attracting to predators.

11. If a particular species is known to react adversely to call-playback, do not use their calls! It would be great if members can share their experience in the discussion so we know what species falls into this category (I will add them here as they are mentioned; referencing the contributor)

12. Always use common sense, immediately STOP if the birds are distressed or acting abnormally in any way!

The equipment I use for this, is probably sub-optimal, I use an iPhone only. It does lack volume, but I do feel it is less intrusive as a lot of species don't respond. I am a wandering/opportunistic photographer, carrying speakers, a hide and a tripod is too cumbersome for me, it is easy enough to keep the phone in your pocket (the compass function can also be very handy if you get lost in the Mallee.) Gerard Satherley's website has a great atricle (which I used writing this article) and some amazing photographs.

One of the most successful ‘call-playback’ photographic experiences I had was the response of a Striated Pardalote to the call of a Red-browed Treecreeper. Let me explain, I stopped at road works and was listening to some bird calls (nerd alert) and was surprised by the pardalote investigating. He stayed long enough for some images and even preened as he wasn't intimidated and didn't have to defend hid territory.

I have also used it to attract the ever elusive Carpenterian Grasswren at the famous/well published site. These birds have endured playback for many decades and are not detrimentally affected as they are still present and appear to be doing well. In contrast they have disappeared from many other areas rarely or never accessed by birders, mainly due to habitat destruction (fire).

In the end, the decision whether to use responsible call-playback lies with the birder/photographer.

Article originally by Heyn de Kock.

See the forum for the full discussion on this article.

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