It’s long been known that the undersea noise we create with our large machines — oil drilling equipment, ships and submarines — has a detrimental effect on whales, causing hearing damage and changes in feeding, mating and communication. And noise from snowmobiles has often been cited as the reason some species of animals in Yellowstone National Park are being stressed and pushed out of their preferred habitats, impacting their health and increasing mortality.
It turns out that our large machines, though, may not be our only cause for concern when it comes to outdoor noise pollution and its effects on the natural world. Our small, compact mobile phones — and the apps we put on them — have been shown to change the behavior of birds.
Will the noise we individuals are increasingly capable of imposing upon other species outdoors soon also have enough power to affect their ability to survive?
Silence is golden
Not so long ago, indulging in your bird-watching hobby meant taking your binoculars into the field, patiently searching — sometimes for hours — every tree and branch for movement, and hoping for that fleeting glimpse of a long-sought-after species. You traipsed to the remote spots where you believed the birds lived. Today, however, you can park your car not far off the road, access a particular birdsong recording from your smartphone, play it on an endless loop and wait for birds to come to you.
Tech-savvy birders now have at their fingertips the calls of more than seven hundred North American species, simply by downloading one of a number of smart-phone apps. Unfortunately, most of these apps don’t come with instructions, so some novices will play the songs repeatedly until a bird appears for that perfect photograph or for checking off on a life list. And since birders tend to share hot spots and unusual sightings via the Internet, some birds may be blasted with the artificial calls over and over again.
The problem is that if a call is overplayed, birds may become overly excited and quickly fly back and forth, wasting their energy. They may get distracted from crucial activities, such as feeding and nesting. When males hear another male’s call, they perceive it as a threat. Those birds may then expose themselves to predators and leave their nests vulnerable. Recently, in fact, federal biologists scaled back the use of recordings in spotted-owl surveys after it became clear that the birds that “whoo”-ed in reply were subject to attack by the more aggressive barred owls.
Both the American Birding Association Code of Ethics and National Park Service regulations disallow the harassment of wildlife. And most national parks (not to mention state parks and national wildlife refuges) regard the consequences of playback (heart-pumping anxiety, undefended nests and mates, and exposure to predators) as harassment, thereby prohibiting the use of birdsong playback by smartphone. In fact, on Yosemite National Park’s website is the statement: “Refrain from using broadcast bird calls to elicit responses.”
Many old-school birders say using smartphone apps to attract and spot birds is lazy. Birding purists claim it’s cheating.
You make the call
But those in favor of using these kinds of bird apps say that having a bunch of birders barge through a natural environment may disrupt a bird’s life even more than a few electronic birdcalls. Even birders who just sit still can be disruptive, if they end up sitting near a nest. While proponents of the apps agree that they may cause stress to the birds, it’s a very short-term stress as long as playback is only rarely used and used in places where birds aren’t likely to ever encounter recorded songs again, such as deep in the woods. And if suggested guidelines are followed — such as never target threatened or endangered species, use only short snippets of song and stop after a few minutes — the little stress that is caused will be further reduced.
The biggest benefit to this new technology, some say, is that it fosters a growing popularity in birding among younger people. If being able to use such bird apps in the outdoors attracts their attention and interest, we’ll do much to encourage a new generation of bird advocates and conservationists.
Do you think the use of bird apps in the outdoors is a positive change in birding? Or are noise regulations — not only for large companies but for individuals — now needed to ensure we don’t harm the very creatures we strive to see?
Feature photo: Smartphone bird apps have the potential to distract birds from crucial activities, such as feeding and nesting. ©Steve Morello