playback ethics

Down in Georgia the last few days i had a conversation with a local birder about playback, and it reminded me how unresolved this issue is. 

As a guide myself, I'm probably unusual in not condoning playback. But for me, it has got the point where it's clearly damaging. Most of my birding (and all of my guiding) is in the neotropics and southern cone, where it’s much more obvioulsy an issue than in North America (where most people, some photographers excepted, are pretty sensitive).

However, on a recent trip to Panti in Malaysia (a critical refugia – one of the Malay peninsula’s last reminaing lowland dipterocarp forest amid a sea of palm-oil plantation) I was pretty horrified by the playback use. It made even what I’ve seen in S. America seem benign: 

This video i took (surreptitiously) on one deck of the only observation tower at Panti. What's hard to see is that these Japanese and Malay photographers have rigged a pretty big speaker to the roof, and are playing barbet calls on a loop at way higher decibels than any naturally vocalising bird. They’d sit around smoking until the bird came in so close to the point it was attacking the speaker, then they’d leap up to their tripods for a shot. An hour or so of this, and then they'd repeat for other species. The whole thing - falling over tripods and high-fiving - was farcical to the point of a comedy sketch, but when you consider the habitat of Panti, harbouring threatened and vulnerable taxa and one of the Pensinsula's critical IBAs, it's actually pretty devastating. 

The argument I often hear is that walking around birding in the forest, especially in groups, could be more damaging than sitting back and calling birds to you. Personally, I find this argument pretty spurious. Birds have co-evolved with our species, and have adaptations to deal with our physical presence – avoidance tactics, most simply. They haven't co-evolved with a iPod playlist and big-ass speaker blasting songs across the canopy.

In the end I waited and ripped the speakers down...

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I work in NYC and own a wildlife and wilderness agency specializing in the southern cone of South America. I still do some guiding down there, especially looking for Fuegian and Patagonian avifauna. I'm particularly interested in the wintering ecology of neotropical migrants, and in avian biogeography in general. You can follow me at - @domhall And find me at - AventuraArgentina.com