December 25, 2014
Canyon Wren singing
Canyon Wren singing
I will never forget the excitement we felt that evening years ago in Madera Canyon when we heard our first Elf Owl.  Adrenaline flowing, binoculars up, we crept softly around a bend in the trail and saw . . . another birder standing there playing an Elf Owl tape.

Now flash forward thirty years to a recent morning which found me leading a birdwalk along one of the birdiest and most heavily birded trails in central Arizona.  Due to a scheduling coincidence, another walk was out that same morning in the same area.  A special target for my group was to hear the beautiful and inimitable song of the Canyon Wren cascading down the musical scale as it echoed down the trail’s spectacular canyon walls, onomatopoeia in the most correct sense of that word.

Nearing the top of a hill, we heard a Canyon Wren downslope ahead of us.  Anticipation rippling through the group, we crested the ridge and saw . . . the other group below us, their leader holding his I—gadget high above his head playing a Canyon Wren tape.

Unless you started birding just yesterday, you are probably aware of the decades old controversy regarding the use of tape recorded bird songs to attract birds.  And in this day and age when smart phones outnumber smart people, it’s quite easy for converts who did start birding just yesterday to play an app and see a bird it took years of study and travel for long-practicing birders to find without digital aids.  Now generational gaps have been added to the long list of other issues inherent in using bird song tapes.

In their Code of Birding Ethics the American Birding Association says to limit the use of recordings and other methods of attracting birds, and never use such methods in heavily birded areas.  The devil in the details, of course, is that every birder’s definition of “limit” will depend on their agenda.  In the thirty year interim between the two above mentioned incidents I have used tape both to see and to photograph birds, and I must admit I’ve been equivocal about it for all thirty of those years.  I have never used tape where it is illegal (Madera Canyon), I have never used tape in a heavily birded area (such as the area of my December bird walk), I have never used tape as a birdwalk leader, and I have never used tape when I suspected there was another human being within the sound of my tape.

The recent incident with the Canyon Wren tape has served to focus my feelings about the use of tape.  My gift to the birds this Christmas is a personal decision never to use tape again.  In my next column I will present a list, the cons without the pros, of taping, because I’ve come late in my birding life to the conclusion that there are no good reasons to tape and taping should be banned in all parks and public places.  Human hubris is not a good reason.