It is a cold night in early March and the young moon barely visible through the thick branches of the oak forest. Two of us are sitting in a car parked by the side of the road, all four indicators blinking just in case of some drunk driver. Not that there is much traffic and yet, we do get three to five cars in the fifteen minutes that we spend on each census point.

A portable speaker is placed on the top of the car, playing Tawny Owl calls from a smartphone. In a very short time, we get two responses, two birds calling from opposite directions. Quickly, we stop the playback to avoid further disturbance, I write down that they were both males, guesstimated distances and the azimuths from which they responded and we move to the next point.

What is wrong with this picture?

Some will say “nothing” and in this particular case I am willing to agree. Others might say “disturbing territorial birds with playbacks” and in this situation I would partially agree, while in many others I would fully agree.

So, what makes this playback use different from any other? Although we do enjoy it immensely, we are not doing it for fun, but to gather information on distribution, habitat choice and density of breeding pairs of owls for the first national and second pan-European atlas of breeding birds. As long as we do not harm birds, I think it is justifiable to use playback for scientific reasons.

Driving through the forest in darkness, we had a Tawny Owl flying across the road. We break, play the call and get the response of a female. Since only male responses counts as a breeding pair, we continue with the playback and she comes to a branch right above the car to investigate. I cannot resist but turn my headlamp on – what a gorgeous girl! Undisturbed by the light, after some time she flies away to a branch maybe 50 ft from us, I turn my torch towards it – two! Two of them are sitting on the same branch, finally we do get another response, from the male, and turn the playback off immediately.

Personally, I do not feel comfortable using playback in casual birding (is there such a thing as “casual birding”?). I find it to be cheating, but okay, I am old school. In my rock climbing days, I used no bolts that drill the rock and stay in it permanently, but left the cliff faces as pure as I found them. Was it the right way? Well, that way left me with a broken spine, so it might not necessarily be the best way, but – more importantly – it was my way.

Reinhold Messner is a mountaineering legend, among other reasons, because he was the first man to climb the fourteen highest peaks without additional oxygen. When asked why, he said that he finds climbing a 26,000 feet mountain with oxygen tanks cheating, because one is faking 19,000 feet.

We also had one somewhat tricky situation. Very quickly, we had a response by female who came to see those other owls away and landed in a tree above us. And we didn’t stop the playback because we were hoping to get the male to respond, too. The female was agitated, and while the research protocol does not accept a single female as a pair, I am convinced that she was defending her nest, while the male may have been away hunting. In this situation, we played the call for 15 minutes (with pauses) and then left. This I didn’t like and neither did she.

Still, using playback to gather scientific data is acceptable to me, while doing the same just for the fun of it is – in my eyes – cheating. My choice is rather to dip the bird, than use too much technology. But, as I said earlier, that is my way.

After this bold statement, I should be honest enough to say that I am not an absolute purist and rarely, perhaps once or twice per year, I do try playback. At least, it is my last resort, never the first.

Where do you stand with playback use?

Photo by Andreas Trepte / Wikimedia Commons

Written by Dragan
Dragan Simic is obsessively passionate about two things – birding and travelling in search of birds, and that has taken him from his native Balkans to the far shores of Europe and the Mediterranean, southern Africa, India and Latin America. His 10,000 Birds blog posts were Highly Commended in the International Category of the 2015 BBC Wildlife Blogger Awards. Birder by passion and environmental scientist by education, he is an ecotourism consultant, a field researcher and a bird blogger who always thinks that birding must be better behind that next bend in the road, and that the best bird ever is – the next lifer. He tweets as @albicilla66