A birdsong app mimics birdsong so well that it is confusing birds on nature preserves in the U.K. and distracting them from the essential task of feeding their young as they hurry from their nests to fight imagined rivals.
Nightjars are nocturnal birds with a distinct “churring” call that contains up to 1,900 notes a minute and rises and falls “with a ventriloquial quality.” They are on the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’s Red List, meaning that they are globally threatened. In the U.K., the population of nightjars saw a huge decline during the 19th and 20th centuries largely due to human activity, through habitat destruction, but now there’s a new threat: “amateur bird watchers blundering into a nesting area wielding a smart phone on full blast,” as the Telegraph says.
The population of nightjars has seen a recent resurgence at a nature reserve on Brownsea Island. Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, intentionally disturbing nesting birds including nightjars is an offense. But visitors seeking to photograph birds have been doing just that using apps such as Chirp!, which was made by developer iSpiny.
Conservationists have “largely welcomed” new technologies including apps and social media as these have helped to create a “whole new audience” for birdwatching, says the Telegraph. But as Chris Thain, the nature reserve manager on Brownsea Island, says, the “use of these apps is not suitable for nature reserves and can be potentially harmful to sensitive species” and especially one that is territorial like the nightjar. Dorset Wildlife Trust has launched an online campaign to tell visitors not to use the apps on its 42 reserves. Thain underscores that visitors using the apps would most likely be “devastated” to realize the harm they are unintentionally causing.
Hilary Wilson of iSpiny describes the app as a “learning tool” and notes that iSpiny “welcomes the discussion into the ethics of recorded songs.” As she says, “we urge great caution – birdsong is simply a pleasant sound to human ears, but to birds it is a powerful means of communication.” A recent post on Chirp!’s Facebook page emphasizes that the “golden rule” is to “never play sounds to attract a species that is in its breeding season or rare!”; Wilson also suggests keeping the volume of the app down low.
It is not simply that the Chirp! app is distracting birds but that people are too eager to get as “up close and personal” with wildlife as they can. As RSPB spokesman Graham Madge puts it,
People seem not to be content with simply viewing birds but want zoomed-in, high-resolution images as well. There are occasions when people just have to accept what is in front of them rather than always wanting to get closer. You can have wonderful encounters with wildlife without compromising it.
Thain urges people to see the concerns about the apps within a wider debate about the use of technology in bird watching. He points out that it has long been possible — via tape recorders, for instance — to play precise replicas of birds calls to attract them. Noting that “when I was growing up people just didn’t do that,” Thain says that he and other conservationists “want to bring that spirit back.”
A bird’s song tells you “what it is and where it is,” says the Cornell Lab of Ornithology; bird songs are often how biologists identify different types of birds and count them in the field. You can train your ear to recognize the songs and calls of different birds many of which can be heard via recordings in an online database such as this one, Bird Jam, or, indeed, via apps like Chirp!
Afterwards, why not leave the phone in your pocket when you’re outside listening for the (real) nightjar’s call?
Photo from Thinkstock