Birding Apps: Great for Kids, Bad for Birds?

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
June 13 2013 12:23 PM

Birding Apps: Great for Kids, Bad for Birds?

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A ladder tailed nightjar in Ecuador,

Photo by PABLO COZZAGLIO/AFP/GettyImages

Getting kids into nature is a tough sell today. Inside, we have computers, televisions, video games, and climate control. Outside, there are mosquitoes, sunburn, and poison ivy. Of course, these two worlds are not inherently incompatible, and smartphones are starting to provide a link between them. For instance, I have my phone loaded with apps that give me step-by-step directions for every knot known to man, one that identifies ticks, another for constellations, and the entire U.S. Army survival manual.

So it makes total sense that the Audubon Society and other birding clubs would take advantage of this trend by developing apps that mimic, identify, and even record and process bird songs—all the better to get kids and adults interested in the natural world, right?

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Unfortunately, it seems these apps may be a little too good at what they do. In England, the Dorset Wildlife Trust has issued a warning against using bird apps on nature reserves. Photographers have been known to use the apps to draw in elusive birds to get better shots.

One such bird is the European nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus). Following widespread habitat loss in the 1980s, nightjar populations plummeted across the United Kingdom and have only just begun to recover. The birds are camouflaged and nest on the ground, which makes them particularly vulnerable to disturbances—like unleashed dogs and fanatical birders. The nightjars winter in the African Cape and are typically nocturnal, but through May and June males emerge around dusk to wind-clap, sing, and generally catch the attention of all the single ladies.

However, officials from the Dorset Wildlife Trust worry that nightjars looking to get jiggy with it will be distracted by the artificial calls of an iPhone. This might make for good pictures, but every animal must strike a balance between gathering resources (eating, sleeping) and expending them (foraging, fornicating). It may seem overprotective to think a few birding apps will impact the population, but with a recovering species like the nightjar, every little bit counts.

“Repeatedly playing a recording of birdsong or calls to encourage a bird to respond in order to see it or photograph it can divert a territorial bird from other important duties, such as feeding its young,” said Tony Whitehead, public affairs officer for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, in the statement. “It is selfish and shows no respect to the bird. People should never use playback to attract a species during its breeding season.”

To get a little perspective on the issue, I asked Audubon about its app and its potential for harm. Geoff LeBaron is director of the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, an annual citizen science project designed to monitor bird populations. In an email, LeBaron told me that “attractant noises” are actually illegal on federal and many state properties, and that they should never be used in national wildlife refuges or state parks. Nor should one use attractant noises on threatened species, endangered species, rare species, during breeding season, or around nesting birds.

Since that many caveats seemed to render the app unusable in the field, I asked if the Audubon app was meant to be more of a classroom accessory than a field guide. LeBaron replied, “The Audubon Guides are certainly for use in the field, but (as with printed field guides) are more for reference for birders to learn the vocalizations as well as plumages of birds. … in general, I think the intent was for education, not for the attracting of birds for closer view. That’s what binoculars are for!” So, maybe use the app with your headphones on.

Naturalist David Mizejewski at the National Wildlife Federation seems to take a more relaxed approach. “At the NWF, we’re trying to get more people outdoors and we’re proponents of using technology to do that,” said Mizejewski. “From that point of view, at least in the absence of studies and data, [cautioning people against app use] might be a little bit aggressive and a little more strongly stated than is actually warranted.”

Mizejewski also pointed to numerous, already demonstrable threats that might be more deserving of our attention, like climate change, habitat loss, and invasive species.

In any event, how about we all just show some freaking discretion? Technology is fun, and in some ways it might even be capable of enhancing our nature experience. But the minute you start cock-blocking the wildlife, it’s probably time to power down.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Jason Bittel serves up science for picky eaters on his website, BittelMeThis.com. He lives in Pittsburgh. Follow him on Twitter.

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