Bird Photography Ethics – How to Use Birdcall Apps

I am a bird photographer and that means I have one very large group of people who hate my guts. The hard-core birders. These people don’t do bird photography. They merely watch birds – i.e., birdwatching. They are convinced that bird photographers are evil and that we are somehow out there harming birds. Most of these birders are sincere. That group is just uninformed. Some of these birders are like the cranky old guy who runs your homeowner’s association and who lives to “catch” you violating the rules. Wannabe bird cops I call them.

Regardless of intention, the birders are often at odds with bird photographers. You’d think there’d be a symbiosis there, but you’d be wrong.

Most of what the birders believe is based on mis-information, poor information or no information.

A big area of contention is the use of bird calls. There are now many smartphone apps that play bird songs and they can be a great way to call birds into an area where there is a good background and perch.

I have studied (at a university level) birds, for the last 20 years. I love birds probably more than anyone reading this. I would never knowingly do anything to harm a bird. And I use bird calls.

If they’re used responsibly, bird calls cause little or no impact on the birds. But do know this. ANY human presence…of ANY kind, impacts birds. It’s simple. Birds have been here since the dinosaurs and that means they were here before us. Our very existence is going to change things for them. And LOTS of things we do are harmful to birds, primarily the biggest problem we pose is we destroy their habitat to build our homes and businesses. Calling birds (even if harmful) would be tiny by comparison.

As a bird photographer, I argue that my photos of birds help to make birds more accessible and important to non-birders. Over the years, many people have contacted me to tell me that my avian images have motivated them to take up bird conservation. Bird photographs make it possible for ornithologists to study parts of the bird that cannot be seen by the naked eye or without actually holding the bird. So I am convinced that my work as a bird photographer HELPS – not hurts birds. You may disagree. You will never, however convince me otherwise.

I am writing this to try to teach and share what I consider to be ethical bird photography practice. I am not here to tell anyone else what to do. And I am just one voice and many people will agree with me; some will disagree. I do not seek to change anyone’s mind because at the ripe old age of 65, I realize that changing someone’s mind is nearly impossible. I merely seek to inform and to offer advice to those who’s minds remain open on how to effectively use bird calls.

When it comes to birding ethics, I rarely see eye-to-eye with Audubon. It is a very well-meaning group full of birders (not bird photographers) and it most often takes positions that paint bird photographers as the bag guy. But here, to my surprise, we have some area of agreement. I am going to excerpt an article they posted based on the work of noted and respected ornithologist, James Sibly

“Playback is one of the most powerful tools in a birder’s struggle to see birds in the wild. It will arouse the curiosity of any species at any time of year, but it works best on territorial species during nesting season. Birds that might otherwise be too shy to come into the open can be attracted by the sound of a potential rival. Whether this trickery has any significant impact on the birds is not so clear.

Fundamentally, birding disturbs birds. Everything we do has an impact on them. But in some situations playback can be less disruptive than other methods of attracting birds, at times even less disruptive than sitting quietly and waiting for a bird to show. Proponents argue that playback reduces the need to physically enter and disturb a bird’s habitat and, unlike pishing, targets a single species.

Of course, others argue that playback causes birds unnatural stress, and at least one study shows it can cause a male to lose status with its rivals and mate. Researchers generally agree that the effects of playback are poorly known. So like other birding techniques, playback requires care and “field-craft.” You need to be aware of, and sensitive to, the habits and behavior of the bird you are trying to lure.

When using playback in the field, here’s what not to do:

The epitome of bad playback etiquette is the birder who walks around with a device continuously and loudly broadcasting sound, or the photographer who sets up a device on continuous playback and waits for the bird to fly in. This is ineffective, unnecessary, and the kind of practice most likely to harm birds and disturb other birders.

Playback is prohibited in many parks and refuges. It is also illegal to disturb endangered or threatened species. Respect the rules.

Any potential negative impacts of playback are more likely to occur in areas with a lot of birding pressure, so avoid playback entirely in those locations.

And here’s how you can responsibly and effectively use playback:

Plan carefully and understand your quarry. If you have already heard or seen the bird, consider those locations when deciding where to play audio. You must be in (or very near) the bird’s territory to get a useful response.

Choose your spot and set the stage. You should play the recording from a location that offers the bird a comfortable approach through its preferred habitat, and also has openings, edges, and/or prominent perches where it will come into view.

Ask your fellow birders if anyone objects to using playback. If not, announce to the group that you are about to start playback (just quietly saying “playback” will do), and hold the device up above your head so other birders can see at a glance the source of the sound.

Begin by playing the recording quietly for just a few seconds—for example, just two or three songs. Your starting volume should be lower than the sound you imagine the bird would produce. Then stop, watch, and listen.

If there is any response, try very short snippets of song after that, even stopping the recording after half of a normal song, to try to tease the bird into the open without posing a serious challenge to its self-esteem.

If there is no obvious response after 30 to 60 seconds, play another 15 to 30 seconds of sound. Remember that the bird may respond by approaching silently, so watch the vegetation carefully on all sides, and also watch and listen for a response from neighboring males.

If you still don’t detect any response, play the recording again, watch, wait, and repeat. But don’t keep this up longer than about five minutes, and resist the urge to finish with a prolonged, loud barrage of song.

Wait around, or circle back after 10 to 30 minutes. Many birds will remain silent in the immediate aftermath of the playback, and then begin singing vigorously minutes later. Males in other territories might do the same.”

I am in line with most of what is printed in the Audubon piece. But I do not believe that there is any legitimate study proving playback harms birds any more than our mere presence in their surroundings harms them. I do believe that playback can be overused. I personally only call a bird once – for no more than 15 seconds at a time. I then wait at least five minutes before repeating and if I find no response, I stop. Also, I don’t use playback in areas where there are birders…just bird photographers. This lessons the possibility for conflict between the two groups.


There are people who believe it’s unethical to have a hummingbird feeder. Nothing I do or say will change the mind of someone that strident. But if you’re interested in bird photography and the issue of bird calls has crossed your mind, I hope I have enlightened you in some way.

Picture Methods has partnered with Hunt’s Photo & Video to bring you the best gear at a competitive price and backed by personal service. Call Alan Samiljan at 781-462-2383 or Noah Buchanan at 781.462.2356. If you cannot reach either one try Gary Farber at 781-462-2332. You will ALWAYS get the best prices if you call the store v. Using the web site. You can also email Noah at: or Gary at: Hunt’s has been around a long time and you can trust them. Make sure to mention that Scott Bourne sent you. That will get you the best deal.