Sunday, June 16, 2013

Time to Ban Bird Songs on IPhones?

The ethics of using recordings to attract birds has been controversial since the days of clunky cassette machines. Now, anybody with a smartphone and a few dollars has instant access to the songs and calls of every species in the United States, and in quite a few foreign countries, too. Walking down a trail and hear a white-eyed vireo in the bushes? Push, swipe, tap, tap . . . He's in your face. It's easy—but is it wrong?
Genuine scientific research on the subject is rare, and what exists is contradictory. But a number of bad things could happen when a birder plays a song to attract a bird. Momentarily distracted, the bird could be snatched up by a predatory hawk (this has been witnessed a number of times by distraught birders). One study showed that females lost "respect" (to anthropomorphize a bit) for mates who couldn't drive away a rival, as would seem to be the case when a recording is played for a long time, and the females went on to copulate with other males. It's long been believed that a bird unable to chase away an intruder might abandon a breeding territory, though it's questionable how often this actually happens. In winter, when food may be scarce and birds need every bit of energy they can get, chasing a nonexistent rival could physically weaken a bird by causing it to needlessly burn calories.
Scientists and environmentalists (the two are often combined) are very good at finding minor effects, and blowing up their significance to a federal crime (in some cases literally).  Take, for example, all the things that have been blamed on global warming. Surely, things like calling birds with a fake call could have some effects on the margin, but would it be any worse than what happens when bird watchers bash around in the bush, call the birds in by mouth, and otherwise disturb them in the wild?  I reserve my doubts.  Certainly, it's probably much less damaging to birds than wind power generators, which all right left-thinking environmentalist think are the cat's meow.

But since I have a dumb phone, sure ban bird songs on them.

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