Every birder and wildlife photographer knows that birds can be "called in" using taped recordings of their calls.
Of course no one uses tapes anymore, but people still call it that. There are few forums that discuss the ins and outs, whys and wherefores of using songs and calls for this purpose. Here is one.
USING AUDIOTAPES IN BIRD PHOTOGRAPHY/VIDEOGRAPHY
Audiotapes have been maligned by some in the birding community as disruptive to birds and their breeding. When properly used, they are not, and they are critically important to getting good footage of small, singing birds.
GROUND RULES FOR THE DEFENSE
Birds need a few things to breed successfully. Number one is a mate. Number two is a specific plot of land (the couple’s territory) where the pair can go to find food, but where competitors of the same species are vigorously excluded. A male birds sings on his territory during the breeding season to attract a mate, to let others of his species know what the boundaries of his territory are, and to intimidate them to keep out of it. Very often two or more individuals will have bordering territories. They know where the boundaries are, and sometimes have favorite perches to sing from, well placed to keep an eye on the neighbors. Birds learn the special identifying quirks of each other's songs, so they know who’s supposed to be where.
GROUND RULES FOR THE OFFENSE
The idea of playing a recording of the song of the bird you are trying to photograph or videotape is that the bird (usually the male, but sometimes the female, too) thinks a rival is present, and will come to the sound to fend him off. It’s when the bird approaches that you get your pictures. You’d like him to get as close as possible. Although use of a blind and a remotely controlled recording may be ideal, unless you are planning to spend a day or more with one bird, it’s impractical. It’s not necessary to hide but to stay as inconspicuous as possible with earth-tone clothing, and a hat if you have a chrome dome. You probably will be standing on some kind of road or trail, largely in the open, to be able to manipulate the camera/camcorder on its tripod, so the birds know you are there. Anyway, when the bird hears your call, he’s looking for another bird, not a human, and you eventually become part of the landscape.
DIFFERENT SPECIES, DIFFERENT RESPONSES
Filming birds with the aid of audiotapes isn’t just play a song; snap a picture. Success has a whole lot to do with the species you are after, and where it lives. The easiest birds inhabit desert, sage, scrub or other open areas with low vegetation. They expect their rivals to be within a few feet of the ground. That’s just where your taped sounds are coming from, and the birds respond readily. Of these birds, the thick-billed seed eaters (buntings, towhees, juncos, sparrows, etc.) are the most cooperative. They love to sing from exposed perches in their territories and do it for a long time; long enough to allow you to compose shots. Wrens and thrashers will also put on a great show. There are exceptions to these rules. For example, winter wrens, and LeConte’s sparrows are birds that love thick cover. Unlike others of their tribe, they will not come out and sit for you. If you know that your bird is a “skulker”, as is often mentioned in the field guides, don’t expect an easy tape session. We’ll discuss this in more detail later.
For the videographer, birds from these groups will often give several minutes of front views and rear views, all singing away. It’s tempting to get fantastic head shots full of tongues and eye lashes but remember to back off and get some whole-body or more distant footage to use for an introduction.
One sought after group of birds with a stereotyped response to tapes are the wood warblers, and some of the vireos. Warblers overshoot the mark. They can tell what direction your call is coming from, but they often think it’s a bird in the trees behind you and fly right over your head, to search the woods on the other side of the trail. If the bird stops there to sing (or for a warbler, at least slows) , you can just turn around and get some fine footage, an advantage of staying in the open. One problem with a warbler is that as you keep trying to call him out he may fly from one side of you to the other, never staying put long enough to film, finally giving up and ignoring you altogether.
There is a lot of variation in responses in this group. Warbler genera that live near the ground (Vermivora, Wilsonia, Seiurus, Geothlypis) are easier than the tree-loving Setophaga warblers. You will be very lucky to get a cerulean, blackburnian, hermit or any other Setophaga to come down out of the heights, and then once is all. Just as ground living birds expect their rivals to be near the ground, birds of the high trees expect their rivals to be up there. Your high pitched warbler recordings are just as ventriloquial as the real McCoys, and the birds look where the money should be.
Photography in the high trees is a crap shoot. Hopefully you can make an enlargement at home. The videographer, with greater inherent magnification, can get in for the few seconds a warbler may be visible and obtain some useable footage. It’s important to set your tripod for high angle shooting with the camcorder viewfinder at about your hairline. That way you can look up into the camcorder for high tree shots, but can reach lower angles by standing on your toes if the bird decides to come down. When pointing up, balance the camcorder against the tendency to continue to tilt upward on its own. With warblers do all this before you play the music. When the action happens, you'll have seconds to react.
The previously discussed groups: sparrows, finches, wrens, and warblers, are among the easiest to call in and shoot. Thrushes will come around when they hear your tape, but they try to stay hidden. Swainson’s and varied thrushes are very difficult. Wood thrushes always manage to keep a few sticks or leaves between themselves and the camera. (Really, they’re very good at it).
Flycatchers do their own thing, and respond poorly to tapes. It is more effective to watch them for a while, see where their favorite perches are and stake one out. You can use a tape to draw a flycatcher to the vicinity of a favored perch, but the final decision whether to use it is his.
The “little winter birds”, chickadees, titmice, and kinglets respond, but do it on the run. They are not used to sitting in one place to sing or do much else, but you can get them close. Nuthatches may stay put and scold for a while. These birds are easier at feeders. On the West Coast, wrentits are very cooperative.
Rails respond to tapes. They are so wary, however, that the response may be over before you realize they are even nearby. A visual decoy is useful with rails, but even then the response is rapid and less than satisfactory. Cuckoos, likewise may remain quiet, nearby and unnoticed until they finally fly and it’s too late to film them.
Hawks, and gallinaceous birds are alerted by taped calls, but range so widely that using tapes for photo opportunities requires locating a nest, or a frequently used plot of ground and a stake-out. Very time consuming.
Conspicuous birds like orioles, tanagers, jays, shrikes, or woodpeckers at nest trees don’t seem to need audio tapes to be good photo subjects.
What about owl calls? Everyone knows that imitating a locally common owl can bring in small birds. For straight birding this is true, and you can get plenty of action, but the birds don’t hang around if they don’t see a real owl This limits your photo opportunities.
In summary, certain groups of birds can be expected to respond in certain ways to taped calls. A good generalization is that you can draw a bird in but you canâ€˜t change its habits. Birds that like to show off will show off for you. Birds that lives in thick cover or high trees may come around, but they stay in thick cover or high up in the trees and are still difficult.
PLAYING THE TAPE
Here is how I have learned to play a tape. First play it as loud as if the bird were sitting on your head, for that’s where you want your subject to think the rival is. As you see him approach, you can soften it if he seems hesitant. Birds seem to sing their songs more softly when threatened. You giving a threatened signal may embolden your subject. Have a few repetitions recorded but don’t play them in rapid succession. Use the bird’s own cadence to determine the speed. In effect, answer his calls, or let him answer yours.
Bird song researchers will often play ten repetitions over 1½ to 3 minutes, and then stop to see the results. I think this is a mistake for photographers. You are not just concerned with documenting the bird’s responses. Once the bird shows up, you have to respond quickly and accurately with the camera, and you can’t do that if you’re still playing the tape.
It usually only takes a single repetition, or in many cases just a note or two to get the bird’s attention. Approach a singing bird, and give him just one song. The response is often silence. Be patient. He’s looking for you, and will pop up soon, unexpectedly, and maybe behind you. Be ready, and don’t just keep playing the tape. In the ideal scenario one or two snatches of song brings the bird in. He knows the sound came from somewhere near you. He looks around. You stand still, or very slowly bring the camera in line. Not finding a rival, he decides to let everyone know that this is his turf. He starts to sing. Then he really gets into it. You start filming. It’s wonderful.
After a while most birds figure out that there is not really a rival, and stop responding. Then it’s time to move on. Some birds, like rock wrens, wrentits or prothonotary warblers will keep on coming as you keep on playing, and you may be seriously compromising their breeding efforts. Know when enough is enough.
There will be times when the bird just doesn’t respond, or moves away. You may be tempted to blast him with a barrage of music. You are now playing to your own frustrations. This is poor form that only works with an occasional curious individual. Most birds turn away like kindergarteners confronted with a spoiled brat on the playground. If you must resort to this, just do it once, and briefly. If your tape doesn’t work there are many possible reasons, some of which we will discuss later on.
PREPARING YOUR TAPES
Is it better to record the bird directly, and play his own song back to him, or to bring along copies of commercially available bird songs? Certainly hearing himself would be a shock worth investigating, but if song matching is going on (see below), he may think it just a skilled neighbor, not worthy of a look. At any rate, the equipment needed to record a bird with clarity and play it back is pretty sophisticated (read: expensive). The alternative is to record songs before your outing and take them along to play back with a pocket sized recorder. There are a number of sources of bird songs to copy from, and since you are employing them for your own personal use, it’s quite legal.
The Peterson series has a guide to Eastern and Western songs. Lots of birds, short examples.
The Birding By Ear series (Eastern/Central, and Western) offers more examples of the number of birds it covers, and longer examples, but there’s a lot more talk.
The Stokes Guides are very complete, and usually contain important regional dialects.
There are a large number of regional or state works that are very good.
All of these can be obtained from the American Birding Association (ABA Sales), amazon.com or your local book or nature store. Of course, most songs can be found as files somewhere using Google.
The Internet site Xeno-Canto is a good place to look for songs of birds the world over. The quality isn't
always good. Look for "A" rated recordings.
Some people like to have the name of the bird spoken at the beginning of the recording. If you use an I-pod
or similar device you can see the name with the file and avoid having some baritone screaming at your birds. When you’re copying songs to play, you will also find a variety of other calls at the end of most species examples. Are these of any value? I think that if we knew more about what these call meant it would be easier to decide. For example, a “Honey, come here a minute” call would be very useful. An alarm call saying, “Hide, there’s a goshawk in the next tree”, wouldn’t bring in much business. Unfortunately we don’t really understand most of these seets, buzzes and chips. Surprisingly, alarm calls actually do bring in birds during migration.
YOU NEED TO TELL THE BIRD THE RIGHT THING
Some birds use one song for everything, everywhere. Olive-sided flycatchers say, “Hip, three beers”, in Nova Scotia and in the Pacific Northwest. Other birds (yes, it’s warblers and sparrows again) have a variety of songs . Birds hear the timbre or cadence of their own calls and use these features to identify individuals of the same species. Most of the time a recording of a species obtained anywhere will be recognized by any individual of the same species, and will do the job. There are ways to improve success, however.
Different parts of the song convey different information such as an individual’s identity, his age and vigor, and, important for us, the “stay out of my territory” message. If your call has some of these recognizable elements in it, you’re in business. The whole thing need not be correct to get a response (1). Even if the song you have chosen to play is not quite the one the bird or his neighbor is singing, you’re still going to get something.
There are some well established principles that govern how birds respond to calls.
1. Like humans, birds speak in dialects that they learn as children. The response to a locally common dialect is greater than to one of a distant population, or another subspecies. In certain California populations of the white-crowned sparrow, “This is my turf.” is expressed in the first one or two clear notes of the song. A group of these sparrows that used a single introductory note was not as attentive when played a two introductory note dialect, as when played its own style of call (1).
2. This dialect sensitivity is more pronounced in groups of birds that do not migrate, or migrate short distances. Long distance migrants (all the warblers and birds that lives way north) may respond just as strongly to songs recorded near their home, or from far away places. This is because over evolutionary time migration has spread songs through a wide area (2).
3. There are song types, especially in warblers. Despite the fact that they share elements of timbre and cadence, one species may have several song "types" that sound very different. This is one of the reasons it is so hard to learn to identify warblers by ear. For example, a Type I song may be used to communicate with females. A Type II song may be used to communicate with males (3). If you have brought along a yellow warbler Type I call and the yellow warblers you are trying to film are singing Type II, the response you get may be less than if you had a Type II on hand. The solution of course is to bring both, and III, or IV, or as many as you can. Because of their different uses, different types may be sung at different times of the breeding season, too.
As a practical example, I once found a Townsend’s warbler singing a buzzy “zoo, zoo, zoo, zre-eep” sort of a call. All I had on hand was a very different call, that only shared the “zre-eep”. The bird recognized it from whatever little warbler ears are tuned in to, but the response was lukewarm at best.
The bottom line is to copy as many variations as you can get, or have the patience for, and try to match what the birds are singing. One rendition may have just the phrase you need, another may be a dud. It’s a lot like finding the right trout fly.
AND BE IN THE RIGHT PLACE
Each male wants his own, inviolate, territory. His song is his way of saying this. A song lets him maintain his territory without the costly and dangerous need to physically scuffle with his neighbors. Each bird arrives on territory in the spring. It may be previously unused land, or it may be an old, established territory. Over time boundaries are set, and if there are neighbors, adjusted back and forth until stasis is obtained. Stronger, more vigorous, or more aggressive birds will get bigger, or better territories.
Birds expect neighbors, and once each knows his limits, they settle into a peaceful coexistance. When this happens, some birds begin what is called “song matching”, or incorporating elements of each others repertoire into his own. It’s like an agreement. They are saying, “I’ve accepted your presence, and intend no aggression toward you. Just stay in your own yard.” If you come in with a tape that sounds a lot like a song-matched one, you may be ignored as just “Bob next door”. Bob, however, is NOT supposed to be in his neighbor Fred’s territory. If you want a response from Fred, whether you sound like Bob or a total stranger, you must get into Fred’s territory. This is important. If you aren’t getting the response you want, try moving around a bit to find the territory edge.
You need to get as close as you can into the bird’s territory. This isn’t always possible, because with all the equipment, need for clear views, and time constraints, we are often relegated to shooting from roads or wide trails. A recent trip I took to the coast of Oregon serves as a good example. This area is a temperate rain forest, as much a jungle as anything in the tropics. Anywhere the forest is opened, like a road cut, a riot of impenetrable vines, shrubs and small trees grows up aided by mild temperatures and abundant moisture. This is called an edge, and although it does not meet the research criterion of a 100 meter break in the canopy (4), it’s close enough. Behind this wall is the forest, often going abruptly uphill, or downhill. Getting through the plants, and then setting up a tripod on a steep slope is enough to induce most people to stay on the road. This is fine to film birds that are “edge preferring” such as Steller’s jay, or robin. It is also good for birds that are “edge neutral”, such as chestnut-backed chickadee, wrentit, or Wilson’s warbler. “Edge sensitive” (avoiding) birds such as brown creeper, winter wren, Pacific slope flycatcher and varied thrush are truly birds of the deep forest, Their territories don't include the edges. Standing on the road, you are not in their territory, and they will not come out to you. Play your tapes all day. It’s a stand-off. You may have to search for a better location.
AT THE RIGHT TIME
Another vital consideration is time of season. As soon as males arrive on their breeding grounds they begin to establish territorial boundaries. Many female birds are promiscuous. They want the best DNA to fertilize their eggs, and even though they chose their mates as good providers, someone else may give them smarter kids. Husbands want other males strictly out, and response to tapes at this time is high. Once eggs are laid, however, promiscuity is no longer a problem, and male aggressiveness toward your tape may lessen. When hatching occurs, male singing frequency becomes less and less, as both parents are busy finding food. Some birds will respond during migration, especially spring, but this is hit-or-miss.
It would be so easy if all the birds followed a schedule, but like everything in nature, there’s a bell curve. On any given day the pair you happen to find might be just starting out (good), be on eggs (less good), or be feeding fledglings (least good). A pair down the road may be in the same or a totally different stage. The breeding season starts early in South Florida, South Texas, and southern California. It's as early as February for some species. It starts relatively early (April) in mild climates such as coastal Oregon. Places with cold winters generally have migrant birds arriving to territory between May 15 and 25. Of course, as you gain in altitude, the season is delayed. Wood thrushes in the Piedmont of Virginia may be on eggs May 25, while hermit thrushes in the West Virginia mountains, less than 100 miles away are just arriving on territory. By the middle to the end of June, the good season is gone. There are exceptions, of course, such as birds that have two broods, and species like the American goldfinch which are very late breeders in the Midwest. Global warming seems to be advancing the spring in many places as well.
It really pays to do your homework before traveling. If you live in a university town, the college library may have a wealth of information. If they have “The Birds of North America”, a multi-volume compilation of everything about every bird, you can find when the birds arrive in the spring, lay eggs, etc. This is an average over the whole range, but it helps. Every state has published at least one “The Birds of Our State” book, and these tend to list things like first arrival dates, and breeding habits.
Then there’s the Internet. The extremely valuable American Birding Association site offers access to all the state hotlines and message boards. Search the archives to see what dates people were seeing birds on territory where you are going. Some states have established breeding bird surveys, available as print material, CD-ROM, or on the Internet. Cornell University's "Birds Of North America Online" is a very good source of breeding and behavioral information. It requires a subscription. E-bird is another good source of information, although it can overwhelm you with out-of-date sightings. Finally, the best source of information is from local birders who know what you need to, and are usually happy to help.
FINALLY, FOLLOW THE RULES
In closing let me say that there are limits to how and when to use audio tapes .
1. Don’t overdo it. This is a photographic tool, not the Top Ten Hits to share with your bird friends. They didn’t want to hear you in the first place. Turning your tape on and letting it just play and play is extremely rude to others and to the birds. In addition, it proclaims to the world that you do not know what you are doing.
2. If you are filming a threatened, endangered, or locally rare species, where disruption of nesting of any one pair can be a real tragedy, don’t use tapes.
3. If you are in a local, state, federal or private park where it is expressly forbidden, don’t use tapes.
4. Tapes are easily overused in certain areas. If you are in southeast Arizona and after an eared trogon, or somewhere else after an equally unique bird, you can assume that every tour guide that comes out is using tapes. Be nice and try not to, or just do it really briefly, or go out with a group and let the leader take the blame. Tape overuse can really disrupt reproduction of rare birds. How would you feel if the phone rang day and night and it was always a man asking for your wife?
5. Remember, tapes offend some birders. If someone in the vicinity asks you to stop, it’s probably a good idea.
1. Thompson Jr. A.D. and Baker, M.C. (1993). Song Dialect Recognition by Male White-Crowned Sparrows: Effect of Manipulated Song Components. The Condor 95 ,414-421.
2. Nelson, D.A. (1998). Geographic Variation in Songs of Gambel’s White-Crowned Sparrow. Behaviour 135, 321-342.
3. Beebee, M.D. (2002). Song Sharing by Yellow Warblers Differs Between Two Modes of Singing. The Condor 104, 146-155.
4. Brand, L.A. and George, T.L. (1993). Response of Passerine Birds to Forest Edge in Coastal Redwoods Forest Fragments. The Auk 118, 678-686.