Should the Use of Bird Apps Outdoors Be Banned?

Candice Gaukel Andrews by Candice Gaukel Andrews | August 23rd, 2012 | 8 Comments
topic: Eco Travel, Green Living, Green Tech


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

beluga whales

The undersea noise we create has a detrimental effect on whales, causing hearing damage and changes in feeding, mating and communication. ©Mike Macri

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.

bison in Yellowstone National Park

Bison in Yellowstone National Park follow hot springs in winter to keep warm. Some say they’re being pushed out of this preferred habitat by noise pollution. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

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?

Happy trails,


Feature photo: Smartphone bird apps have the potential to distract birds from crucial activities, such as feeding and nesting. ©Steve Morello


  1. I didn’t even lnow that was such a thing as a bird APP. I am not a birder but I do enjoy the outdoors. I could never see myself sitting for hours waiting for a glimpse of a bird, but can see the attraction and why people would do it. The silence, beauty, anticipation, thrill of actually seeing the bird.

    I think this app is yet another example of the fast lives that we lead. The use of clever human technology to change animal behaviour, I suppose it is no different really to a bird or animal calling device that hunters use to trick the prey animal to a certain death.

    On the other hand it might bring people to bird watching, they may fall in love with it, learn that there is a better way ie just sitting and watching and become one of the happy throng of bird watchers.

    Jon Grant | August 24th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  2. Very interesting article. I can see both points of view. I think the apps have to be used responsibly because they are a good educational tool. I would also point out that naturalists have other ways of calling birds. I’ve been out with a spotted owl expert who whoood them out but also pointed out the danger of attracting predators such as the Great horned owl at the same time. I was on another hike once where someone imitated a dying rabbit and within minutes there were Turkey Vultures and hawks fling above.

    Candi Hubert | August 24th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  3. Interesting… I hadn’t heard this mentioned as a significant issue before. I wonder if the use of an electronic call alters bird behavior any more than attracting birds in unnatural concentrations to backyard feeders – a practice that also attracts predators.

    Great article though!

    Jeff | August 24th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  4. Interesting article. I find it really sad how the progress of technology can be misused or abused and end up potentially hurting other creatures. On the other hand, I agree that it is cheating to use applications to do birding, and in part it takes the beauty of the experience away. I personally would feel less accomplished as a birder if it was that easy.

    Consuelo Arboleda | August 27th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  5. I have been concerned about this issue for a while. Birds in our human-dominated world have enough stresses and dangers to deal with. We birders who enjoy birds do not need to add to their stress.

    Janine Spencer | August 29th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  6. I use bird apps to identify birds by sight and sound but go about it a bit differently. Th ID app has recorded calls that can be looped. If I hear a bird that I dont know I put on my ear buds and listen to calls that are similar. It has a call search feature. You can filter by type of call and area you are in. It is very helpful. I have been interested in birding for many years but only recently became serious about it. The apps have been a hugh help but care should be taken to not disturb the birds daily routine.

    Rick Lesquier | August 30th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  7. Long before technology provided us with recorded bird song, countrymen being able to imitate bird and mammal calls was considered good field craft. My dad taught me how to attract Hares by making the leveret alarm call along with a host of bird calls and songs.
    I’ve just got back from Egypt and while there picked up the calls of Laughing Dove and Yellow Vented Bulbul. I doubt if my ‘conversations ‘ with the birds did much harm but of course it is a matter of degree. Short bursts of imatated (or recorded) song probably does little harm, after all territorial males often try to out do each other but repeated or continuous disturbance of territorial birds by the playing of recordings is probably taking things too far. Its a matter of degree.

    Geri Thomas | September 3rd, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  8. This is a non-issue compared to the real problems our wildlife face.
    The nasty twitcher out to get a tick regardless of the harm they cause is an urban myth, or should i say media myth?
    Where are the stories about the selfish developers and business people out to make a couple of million from the total destruction of birds and their habitats? We should see thousands of those to every one about birders possibly causing disturbance.
    Besides, you’ll find call playback is already banned in reserves and national parks, if anyone bothers to check instead of rushing to condem birders…

    Mark | September 10th, 2012 | Comment Permalink

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