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Cultivating Ethical Bird Photography Behaviours

Crimson Chat Epthianura tricolor: immature male – Oodnadatta Track, South Australia
Crimson Chat – Oodnadatta Track, South Australia

The Psychology of Ethics

There are many definitions of the term ‘ethics’, essentially, ethics can be distilled to ‘the moral principles that govern a person's behaviour or the conducting of an activity’. The Ethics Centre ( makes the salient point that ‘ethical issues are not always neatly resolved’. Why should this be?

Arriving at a moral decision requires high-level cognitive reasoning, and this as far as current knowledge informs us, this is restricted to our species – Homo sapiens, as it requires a large and highly evolved part of the brain known as the cerebellum. In mammals and primates in particular, the cerebellum is the most highly evolved in the animal kingdom and in addition to sensory processing, the complex neural networks in the cerebellum enable language, speech, high-level learning, reasoning, and memory to be undertaken. Herein lies one reason why ethical issues can generate a passionate range of views. Deconstructing and disentangling ethical issues often leads to philosophical considerations which add a further level of complexity in cognitive processing, and which in turn, embraces the fundamental nature of knowledge and a methodological consideration of how we humans perceive reality. Each of us associates with at least one person who in our view has a different grasp on reality – hence a common saying ‘What planet are you on!’. Logical thinking, scientific knowledge, and the scientific method should be an integral part in the decision-making process but too often this is not the case. This leads to a more in-depth conversation as to the reasons for conflicting viewpoints when discussing ethical behaviours for bird and nature photographers, and why there is so much passion and at times animosity generated, when it comes to proposing acceptable behaviours?

Unfortunately, having a large and highly evolved brain to undertake complex cognitive processes also enables compartmentalisation of the issues, which comes with an ability to devalue or ignore those facts and issues which do not fit an individual’s attitudes and aspirations. We see this every day in some media outlets and in the political arena, where only those elements which support a particular viewpoint are presented and in the most extreme cases, disinformation is communicated. One might think that scientific knowledge should be paramount in deriving ethical behaviours, but politics and segments of society has largely relegated science to a ‘back-seat’, with social media disinformation and conspiracy theories prevailing. Humans thrive on controversy and conspiracy, consider the Covid-19 pandemic and the storming of the United States Congress as the most recent examples. Should one choose to discredit an idea or discussion, simply create doubt in the minds of the general population. The information presented may have zero truth and factual value, it is disseminated solely to create doubt, knowing that most people will not have the time nor the inclination to undertake their own fact-checks.

In this introductory article on ethical behaviours for bird and nature photographers, I will not dictate a set of ethical behaviours to abide by, rather I present facts, philosophies, and resources upon which you can derive a personal set of responsible behaviours. You and you alone are responsible for how you conduct your lives and the impact this has on those with whom you share this planet, and the ‘whom’ refers to all extant animal species.

Call Playback – Ethical Considerations

Let’s consider one of the most controversial topics in bird photography – call playback. For those of you who are new to bird and nature photography, call playback is essentially a ‘species-specific audio-lure’ to attract birds for the purpose of observation or capturing a photograph. Sounds innocuous, so why is it banned by numerous scientific organisations in both Australia and internationally, and why does such a ban evoke so much anger and non-compliance from some bird photographers?

To better understand this controversy, we need to create an even playing field, one in which the pro – and con – arguments are equally presented. In starting this process, let’s step back in time, only a few decades in fact, before the advent of smart phone apps and consider how birders learnt bird calls. A few ornithological societies in Australia and overseas produced commercially available recordings of bird calls, initially reproduced on magnetic cassette tapes, which required sitting and listening, in a lounge-chair environment, to a car cassette player or via headphones linked to a portable device such as a Sony ‘Walkman’. As technologies evolved these recordings were subsequently reproduced on CD’s which could be uploaded to personal computers and similar devices. Recordings could be played back to the birds in the field by using portable amplifiers and external speakers, but few birders did so, presumably due to the inconvenience of transporting the necessary audio equipment; the primary usage was by birders who sort to identify birds by call alone. With the advent of the smart phone, field guide apps became popular, enabling ready access to both artwork and photos for each bird species, and additionally having the capability to play regional vocalisations for each species. This enabled birders to identify species in real time rather than having to recall or attempt to translate from a printed field guide, a series of letters which phonetically imitates the call. The smart phone revolutionised birding and scientific endeavour; it also contributed to some photographers utilising the technology to call birds closer and into more open and convenient positions to facilitate the capture of a photo. At this juncture we primarily encounter two trains of thought from those observing and/or photographing birds; there are those people who think ‘what are the cons for the bird if I use call playback’, the second group are thinking primarily about the pros for their photography and the only consideration for the bird is whether it is ideally positioned for that perfect photo. Both groups often launch a tirade against the other with argument and counter argument.

How is it possible to arrive at such diametrically opposing viewpoints? This is partly due to ornithological organisations having differing points of view, in some cases presenting ambiguous or conflicting positions. Thus, it is not uncommon to have members within the one organisation functioning under completely different moda operandi. As birders and photographers, the welfare of the bird should come before all other considerations – this should be the rule with NO EXCEPTIONS.

Purple-throated Mountain-gem; female – Cosa Rica
Purple-throated Mountain-gem; female – Cosa Rica

Pros & Cons for Using Call Playback

Placing the welfare of birds first may mean having to forego observing or photographing a rare and endangered species under certain circumstances. Contemplating welfare issues highlights definite cons associated with call-playback. Whilst there is variation in the response to call playback by species and individuals within a species, it essentially holds that birds respond to call playback more intensely during the breeding season, at which time defending a territory is critical. Thus, calling an individual during the breeding season will divert its duties away from nesting responsibilities; a female bird may leave the nest when recorded bird song lures her mate away from the nest site; the male may leave fledglings unattended which can increase the risk of predation or the fledglings may become disorientated and loose contact with a parent bird; other males may take the opportunity to initiate territorial incursions and disputes; there may be extra-pair copulations; additional expenditure of energy by the home bird(s) can occur; elevated stress hormones in the home bird(s) may have fitness consequences; and the bird may be called away from habitat cover into an open environment where it is subject to a greater risk of predation. On one occasion I witnessed a wren being called into the open only to be plucked from its perch by a predator. The photographer’s comment was “well that bird won’t sing again” and the photographer’s main concern was that an afternoon’s photoshoot had been ruined! In addition to the above, there are studies which have shown that the inability of the male to repel the intruder has led to pair break-up, presumable the female regards the male as being incapable of defending the home territory. This has been observed with some song-bird species in locations where call playback is used regularly by tour groups.

Are there call playback pros for the birds? At least one study has shown that male Serin Serinus serinus vocalisations do not change in response to playback, which might be considered a positive outcome. Further, stress hormone changes were minimal in species which have co-operative breeding although highest in monogynous species, indicating that stress induced changes maybe species specific. There is one pro which has been propagated by several proponents of call playback and this relates to habitat preservation. The argument is that by calling the bird to a photographer, particularly where groups of photographers regularly assemble, this act ensures that a sensitive habitat is not trampled in the pursuit of photography. The issue for me is that trampling habitat in pursuit of a bird photo is a personal choice – no one is holding a gun to your head. One could also argue that photos of rare and endangered species have a conservation and public awareness value, and this is a valid consideration. The question is whether employing call playback to capture a photo outweighs the welfare risks imposed on birds?

Do Ornithological Organisation Advocate the Use of Call Playback?

Given that in reviewing the pros and cons of call playback, there appear to be fewer benefits to the birds than there are cons, one might think that ornithological organisations would prohibit call playback, but this is not necessarily the case. In fact, some ornithological organisations have lengthy recommendations for the use of call playback. Audubon, America’s largest ornithological organisation, published an article in 2016 – “How to Use Birdcall Apps”, which was adapted from an article written by David Allen Sibley, a renown and well-respected USA ornithologist. More recently (April 2020), David Allen Sibley, has published a two-page revised version of “The Proper Use of Playback in Birding.” Note the use of the word ‘proper’ rather than ‘ethical’ in the title, a rather strange selection. Some of the arguments for using call playback imply that if we prohibit call playback, then a ban on ‘pishing’ (vocal imitation of avian alarm calls by birders) and other forms of mimicking bird calls is also warranted. If we are honest, the real reason for such articles resides solely in placating recalcitrant human behaviour – there are those in the population who feel special and entitled and as such they are prepared to capture photos of birds at any cost. Hence, organisations (and some photographers) propose that the only responsible option is to provide a set of guidelines to minimise the misuse of the technique and the harassment of birds. Birdlife Australia takes a similar approach asking members to avoid call playback, indicating that even in a research setting, specialist training, ethics and other permits are required when using call-playback but then provides brief guidelines for those who chose not to follow the advice of Birdlife Australia.

CONFUSED?………you are not alone!

The logic and the well-meaning behind such an approach are understandable, the issue for me with both approaches is that it sends an ambiguous message, which can be confusing, and for some photographers it will foster the ‘entitlement syndrome’. Other organisations have taken a more pragmatic review of the pros and cons and prohibited call playback, erring on the side of caution – THE PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE (defined in this context as: the lack of full scientific certainty should not be used to justify postponing measures to protect the welfare of birds). These organisations include our State and Federal national parks services, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, the Australian Bat and Bird Banding Scheme, and Birdlife Photography, a special interest group of Birdlife Australia with over 900 members, just to name a few in the Australian context.

The Attitudes of Bird Photographers

Other bird photography groups in Australia and overseas make no mention of call playback opting to disregard the issue entirely; this often reflects the views of those in-charge as well as a desire to placate specific members, often a vocal minority. Conversely, there are high profile photographers and professional birding guides, who declare that they use call playback as an integral part of their photographic workflow, that is, on a regular basis. Their justification is that call playback does no harm and there is no evidence that it has a deleterious impact of birds. The tourism industry would argue that ensuring clients see the bird species promised is essential for sustaining this sector of the economy and that by exposing clients to the wonders of the bird world, this promotes bird and habitat conservation; both of which are true to some extent. During field work in Columbia in 2017, two Australian researchers examined the ‘how’ and ‘why’ call playback was used by eight professional birding guides. One result which interested me was that less than 10% of the birds on the trip list were observed only after call playback. The researchers deduced four main outcomes from the three-week study; 1) call playback increased the number of species observed and dramatically decreased the time to first sighting, 2) call playback increased the guides ability to consistently find furtive and range-restricted species on demand by clients, 3) birds responding to call playback appeared agitated and rarely stayed in view for more than a few seconds and 4) established partnerships with local community enterprises are placed at risk if call playback has longer term deleterious effects. Whilst points 1) and 2) are clearly beneficial for the birding guide and somewhat predictable, point 4) is a serious concern for income sustainability by guides and the local community. Point 3) emphasises the key issue underpinning this article – the welfare of birds, which rests in the hands of birders and photographers.

Violet Sabrewing; male – Costa Rica
Violet Sabrewing; male – Costa Rica

What does the ‘Science’ Say!

The common response from call playback proponents, that there is no evidence of harm is worthy of further reflection. Researchers in Louisiana studied the impact of ‘simulated birder playback’ and ‘pishing’ on birds wintering in northern Louisiana. The researchers monitored bird behaviour from observational blinds at several sites using four experimental treatments presented in random order; baseline (no birder), control (birder present – no sound), ‘pishing’ (presented five times) and playback (three bird songs presented). Birder presence, even when concealed in hides, reduced wild bird vocalisations. ‘Pishing’ and playback increased vocalisation behaviours and reduced both foraging and movement behaviours of the birds. In addition, ‘pishing’ reduced self-maintenance behaviours (eg., preening). Whilst this study was short term, these behavioural changes are significant and would likely have negative impacts on wintering birds in the longer term.

In another study the role of sentinels was observed in the Pied Babbler (Turdus bicolour), a co-operative species. The researchers found that sentinel duties were costly to that individual, 1) sentinels were targeted by predators more often than their foraging conspecifics, 2) sentinels were located further from cover than foragers when attacked and 3) sentinels took longer to reach the safety of cover following a predatory alarm. Greater than 81% of the observed predatory strikes were directed on the individual sentinel, one case being a fatal encounter and another in which the sentinel escaped with injuries. This study has some similarities with call playback in that playback lures birds further from cover into more exposed and vulnerable positions for photography; additional risk arises in terms of reduced predatory surveillance as the bird is distracted whilst attempting locate the ‘elusive & false’ intruder.

As expected, there are also studies which appear to show little to no impact on bird behaviour and physiology, at least for the one or two parameters investigated. For example, male Serin Serinus serinus

did not alter their vocal behaviour when presented with playback, whereas Black-capped Chickadee Poecile atricapilla responses depended on the details of the playback stimulus and the status of the males in the study – high ranking males lost paternity from aggressive song playback but not in response to submissive song playback; playback did not alter paternity in low-ranking males. Of interest is that female Serins spent 35% more time engaged in nest building in response to playback of song recorded from an unfamiliar male; how this relates to reproductive fitness is untested and could be positive or equally negative. The take home message from these studies is that in general playback does influence bird behaviours and biology from minimal to dramatic, depending on the parameters investigated in the study.

A study regularly reported as showing minimal impact of call playback on birds, relates to the vocalisation behaviour of two species of Ecuadorian Neotropical songbirds – Plain-tailed Wrens Thryothorus euophrys and Rufous Antpittas Grallaria rufula. Both species were observed to produce more vocalisations initially in response to playback, and in the case of the Plain-tailed Wrens subjected to repeated playback experiments, the vocalisation responses decreased over time and the birds were essentially habituated to playback by day 12. Antpittas were not subjected to the same extended playback regime and hence their responses to repeated playback are unknown. Vocalisations were the only biological parameters examined in this study, leaving a gap in our knowledge as to components of biological fitness such as overall survival rates and reproductive success, for example. Interestingly, the researchers propose that the wren data offers habituation as an explanation why birds repeatedly subjected to playback by birdwatches stop responding and seemingly disappear from a location. The authors also note that habituated birds displaying a less pronounced vocal response may lead to an ineffective defence of a home territory from true rivals. Further, the authors proposed the converse – birds subjected to irregular playback may not habituate to this stimulus, eliciting a stronger response to playback when presented and which may adversely impact behaviours and overall fitness by inducing stress, expending unnecessary energy, and distracting the birds from other essential activities.

At this juncture, a pertinent remark regarding the research listed above and other published manuscripts reviewed in the preparation of this article, is that all these studies required animal ethics approval for examining the impact of call playback on bird behaviours and physiological parameters. When I commenced my research career, research was based largely on an individual’s understanding of animal welfare and moral obligations as an animal researcher. Later in my career, animal ethics committees were legislated for all Australian institutions and organisations conducting animal research (including the human animal). Welfare consistency and transparency was finally underpinning animal research. In 1997 the concept of animal sentience was written into basic law of the European Union and in 2021 animals were formally recognised as sentient beings in UK law. Australian law lags well behind and likely will continue to do so as similar laws would halt the live export trade in this country – in Australia the economy comes first. The wheel of change is slowly recognising that animals are conscious beings capable of feeling and perceiving (pain & emotions) and deserve to be treated with kindness and respect. This is a monumental expectation for humankind as we have not been able to apply this principal to our own kind. One small step for those of us who love photographing birds is to put the welfare of the bird first. If you use call playback from time to time and for a legitimate purpose (such as recording a bird out of its normal range or participating in a census in which playback has been approved) there is no issue in my view; but constantly pursuing birds with playback for that special photo is not justifiable.

Baltimore Oriole Icterus galbula; female, with raindrops falling on her head – Costa Rica
Baltimore Oriole; female, with raindrops falling on her head – Costa Rica

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that bird song recordings were NEVER intended to call birds in the wild, at least not by the general public. These recordings were intended to inform the science of vocalisation, as well as to educate and support the birding community to identify birds by call alone, the latter often utilised for approved bird censuses. The scientific evidence to support or prohibit call playback is scant and yet there is sufficient evidence in the literature to show that playing recordings of bird song modifies bird behaviour and physiology. Our in-depth understanding for the ramifications of playback-induced behavioural and physiological modifications in birds is largely unknown and, as such, responsible photographers should be prepared to err on the side of caution. At the very least it is important to recognise that playback harasses birds. Legislation both in Australia and overseas clearly states that any form of harassment is illegal and punishable by law; this is possibly one of the least understood legal requirements for those of us residing in Australia and must be complied with whether in a national park, reserve or private land holding. For those who think that call playback is not harassing birds, here is a hypothetical exercise which might convince you otherwise. Visualise a neighbour in your street, one whom you might wave to occasionally. See yourself ringing their doorbell with the same duration and repetition advocated by proponents of call playback, informing the occupants you just wanted to see what they were doing as you capture a photo or two. If you were to continue this exercise on a regular basis – how long do you think it would take to be charged with harassment and likely, a restraining order?

In writing this article my intention was to create a greater awareness and insight as to why many organisations and individuals have adopted the Precautionary Principle for their bird photography

“The Welfare of the Birds is More Important than Capturing the Shot”


Graham Cam PhD

Research Scientist & Avid Bird Photographer

Graham Cam, author, research scientist
Graham Cam

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