My concerns about birding tour leader ethics in Central Park elicited a huge response from readers of my blog. That was wonderful, but even more unexpected was a positive response from NYC Audubon and the Central Park Conservancy.
The focus and debate has now shifted to “What are the correct ethics for birding in Central Park?”, “Is there science behind some of the ethics recommendations?”, “How would one write regulations to encourage and enforce proper behavior?” and “Should there be rules for commercial birding tour group leaders?” (The American Birding Association has a detailed section in their Code of Ethics aimed specifically at tour group leaders.)
My detailing of my concerns a few days ago, about the behavior of a tour operator in the North Woods, was not a condemnation of the use of playback to attract birds.
From what I can see, there are no thorough scientific studies about the possible effects of the use of playback to attract birds. The use of playback by birders, rather than by scientific researchers, is relatively new and hasn’t been well studied. The general consensus among scientists seems to be that limited playback of calls for under fifteen seconds (and stopping if the bird arrives earlier), if done using common sense, poses few problems. The feeling is that a bird will interpret the call as just another individual who entered its territory but rapidly got chased out, so that the bird may quickly return to its normal activities.
Deciding what constitutes limited and common sense is a problem, of course. Listed below are some articles and audio dealing with the ethical issues of playback.
- Attracting Birds Using Tapes or Compact Discs by Noel J. Cutright. PDF 1.4Mb
- SoundEthics by Sharon Stiteler, Wildbird Nov/Dec 2008. PDF 2.4Mb
- A Birder’s Dilemma, VHF humanities Feature Bureau, August 17, 2007. Transcript, MP3
- BirdJam Ethics Webpage, (Birdjam is a maker of software to organize bird calls on an iPod)
One of the issues for a heavily used birding hotspot like Central Park is: how do you use a bird call on a limited basis when other birders could have used playback before you? - or may use it after you? This problem will only get worse over time, as more and more users have access to bird call recordings, and MP3 players or smart phones with speakers.
Another issue is: how to play a recording (or Pish, for that matter) in a small space like the Ramble, without disturbing birders who bird by ear? During the spring and fall migrations, it’s not uncommon for five or six groups to be in the Ramble at the same time. So, there are etiquette issues in addition to conservation issues!
What got me frustrated up in the North Woods last week was more complicated than just the simple playing of Screech-Owl calls. My concerns were numerous.
- The use of playback before the bird’s normal fly out time, so that the paying customers on the tour could see the owls in twilight. It was painful to watch a bird that normally wakes up slowly, and flies out in a relaxed manner, instead be made to fly out rapidly, and be denied her normal post fly out preening and courtship behavior. The difference is between a homeowner waking up on a lazy Sunday morning, and a fireman being awoken to respond to a fire alarm at 4 a.m.
- The overuse of playback, including the extended use of it once the birds had been lured to the location of the tour leader. I was also concerned about the intentional leading of the birds to a brightly lit road, rather than the safety of the darker woods, for the benefit of the tour.
- The failure of the tour leader to do fieldwork on nights before and after a tour, to see if the owls could be located and viewed without the use of tapes, so that any potential stress could be reduced. My observations noted rushed fly outs, on days following any owl tours.
- The disregard for birders who were not part of the tour, who instead of being able to watch the normal post-fly out behavior of preening and courtship quietly, had the owls whisked away to a brightly lit road full of loud birders.
- The focus of the tour being about seeing an owl, period, rather than seeing an owl in its natural habitat and getting a chance to watch its normal behavior. If you don’t get to see a bird’s normal behavior when you see it in the wild, why not just go to a zoo?
- A lack of respect for the time of year. The owls in the North Woods are a newly bonded pair. In general, greater care is required during this time period, especially since Central Park owls have been very unpredictable about when they nest. In past years, owls have nested over six weeks too early in Central Park.
Usually owl tours are held in the winter or after the owls’ offspring have fledged. The late spring periods with fledglings are some of the safest, since the birds are roosting high in trees and can move their roost locations, if needed.
- Most ethical owl watchers keep the location of known roost cavities to themselves, to avoid the over-birding of day sleepers. This season’s owl tours disclosed roosting locations to scores of individuals.
- The failure to provide a good example to younger and less experienced birders.
If you review the ABA’s Code of Ethics, you’ll find that all of these issues are covered.
So, what to do about the issues of tour leaders who are pushing the ethical and etiquette boundaries? And the issues of birders using playback?
Regarding commercial birding tour leaders, I do think they need to be held to a higher standard. Once money is involved, ethical boundaries have a tendency to be tested. Enforcing the current regulations requiring anyone using the park for commercial purposes to apply for a permit would be helpful. As part of the permit issuing process, tour leaders could be required to abide by the ABA Code of Ethics, which would be helpful both to the wildlife and to the general birding community. (If a tour leader wanted to organize tours that might run into conflict with the guidelines, there could be an exemption process.)
It would also be helpful to require tour leaders to submit a description and schedule of planned trips. This would allow the Urban Park Rangers to monitor leader behavior and judge the impact tours are making on sensitive areas and species.
Some limitation is needed on audio playback of bird vocalizations. Because of the stress already placed on birds and wildlife, just by being in an urban park, and the heavy use of the park by the bird watching community, it may make sense to ban or strongly discourage the use of playback devices to lure wildlife. This has already been done in many refuge areas, state parks and national parks.
Short of a total ban on playback, there are some restrictions that could be put in place.
The North Woods and the Ramble already have additional restrictions since they are conservation areas. In doing research about how regulations are worded in other parks, I came across a sentence in a Canadian National Park’s guidebook, “It is against the law to touch, entice, disturb or otherwise harass any wild animals big or small.” Adding the word entice to current park regulations for the North Woods and the Ramble would broaden the current anti-harassment language, so as to restrict playback in these areas.
Alternatively, there could be a simple regulation that requires park patrons using playback devices to immediately stop their playback, if requested by other birders. This would empower experienced birders to regulate the over-zealous use of playback by less experienced birders. This would shift the balance from one of “I have a right to play tapes”, to one where the use of playback would require the consensus of all involved.
For those who follow my blog, you know I’m a man of few words but lots of images. If I’ve written this much, you know I really feel passionately about these issues. Thanks for reading my rare editorial comments.