New paper published on the effects of birdwatchers’ playback

15 10 2013

Our paper on how birdwatchers’ audio playback affects the behavior of birds was just published in PLOS ONE. Birdwatchers benefit conservation by supporting ecotourism, but they may have negative effects on the ecosystems they visit. One potentially negative impact comes from the use of recorded vocalizations to attract species of interest. Despite the importance of this issue, the effects of birdwatchers’ playback have not yet been investigated in a peer-reviewed study. We tested for the effects of birdwatchers’ playback on the vocal behavior of Plain-tailed Wrens and Rufous Antpittas in Ecuador. We found that both species produced more vocalizations after playback, but wrens essentially stopped responding after 12 days of repeated playback. Increased vocalizations after playback could be interpreted as a negative effect of playback if birds expend energy, become stressed, or divert time from other activities. In contrast, the habituation we documented suggests that frequent, regular birdwatchers’ playback may have minor effects on wren behavior.

Check out the media coverage of this article here:

Front page of the Wall Street Journal here and here.



7 responses

17 10 2013
Mike Unger

What would be most helpful is a study that is a little more realistic. Most birdwatchers I know do not play a bird song for five minutes. If we play a song at all it is for only 30 seconds to one minute. We do not play songs for rare birds or during nesting time. So the question is how do birds respond to a song that is for only 30 seconds to one minute long? I would never play a song often enough that it would last five minutes. Also many birds do not even react (come out) when you play their song or call. Thanks for your research.

18 10 2013

Thanks for your comment Mike. Many birders do play songs for up to several hours, and they often do so to see rare birds during the breeding season. We chose 5 minutes to strike a balance between short and long bouts of playback. This was also an attempt to replicate an average overall attempt to see a bird with playback. Most birders play a short bout, then wait for a response, then play another short bout, and so on, until the bird is seen. An average attempt lasts about five minutes total. But as you may understand we needed a standardized approach (we couldn’t use different interactive playback treatments for each group of birds).

It would be interesting to try 30 second trials. Hopefully future studies that look at the effects of playback on fitness can compare short and long playback trials.

18 10 2013
Mike Unger

Thanks for your response. I definitely learned something…I was naïve enough to think that birders wouldn’t do long playbacks because it would disturb the birds especially rare birds. Thanks again for your great research in this area.

18 10 2013

Hello Berton, I’m interested in contacting you since I will be attending a symposium about the use of playback in the next South American Bird Fair. Although I’m a birding guide I do not use playback and I will give the possition against it (or at least against the overuse of it) at the symposium. I’m trying to collect all information available about it and cientific studies on the subject are rare. Thank you and I look forward to hearing more about your research

14 02 2015

MARCELO, Did anything come of this. Problem is here in Panama and I would like to hear how folks are generally dealing with excessive Playback in heavily birded areas. The local guide naturalists on the most part have very little if ANY knowledge about Birding ethics and or the proper use of payback. Id love a email if you have a moment.

19 10 2013

Hi Marcelo, That sounds good. Just let me know how I can help.

19 10 2013

Hi Berton, thank you for answering. I would like to read the full paper if possible, and also your considerations regarding the wrens getting used to playback (and not answering any more). Although it’s good that they stop spending their energy in answering it, wouldn’t it be possible that they could also stop answering to “real” territory challenging calls from real birds? Did you always use the same recordings? If you want you can answer me to my e-mail (
Thanks again and best regards

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