Story and Photography by Ethan Meleg
Using audio devices to call birds in close is a common technique in bird photography. Before explaining why it works and how to do it, I must preface it with a caution. This technique can be harmful to birds if it’s not done carefully, and it’s illegal for certain species and in some locations. Follow the guidelines and laws strictly.
Why do birds respond
to audio devices?
Male birds do most of the singing and it’s for two primary reasons: 1) to attract females and 2) to defend their nesting territory from rival males. Their songs are basically saying, “Hey ladies, come check me out!” and, “Stay away other guys, this is my turf.”
When you play the song of particular bird species in their nesting territory, the male bird thinks it’s a rival male coming in to steal his mate or turf. They become agitated and respond aggressively, often coming in very close to investigate. The bird typically sings loudly and continuously in an attempt to repel the other male. Female birds will sometimes come in to investigate too. This is your chance to capture a quick photo.
Aside from your camera gear, the audio gear required is quite simple and consists of three items: an audio player, a bird song app and a speaker. For the audio player, I use my Samsung smart phone (an iPod or mp3 player works too) and the bird app iBird Pro, which contains images and songs for all North American bird species. Any small, battery-operated Bluetooth speaker works. I use a small rechargeable one (see photo) made by Blackberry.
1) Find where the bird is located. This is much easier if you know what kind of habitat the species lives in and you’re able to identify the bird by listening for its song. This knowledge comes with years of experience. Bird books, bird apps or joining a naturalist club are great resources for learning!
2) Set up your speaker in a spot where you think the bird could be called into. For songbirds, I look for a shrub or small tree that has attractive branches, a background that isn’t too busy with distracting sticks, and is in appropriate light (e.g. front lighting, shade or overcast).
3) Stand in the best location to shoot from that’s in range for your lens focal length. If cover is available, hunker in next to a tree so you don’t stand out so much. Some birds are more shy about human presence than others.
4) When you’re ready to shoot, use your audio device to play the bird song through the Bluetooth speaker. Play the song a couple times to see if and how the bird responds. Responses are highly variable. Sometimes the bird flies in immediately and comes right to the speaker. Sometimes they land nearby. And sometimes, they don’t come in at all. If the bird doesn’t respond, try moving the speaker to a better spot or moving your location altogether to somewhere else nearby. If the bird responds, play the song only a few more times and try to capture a few photos while it’s close. DO NOT keep playing continuously as this can harm the bird. The welfare of the bird is more important than a photo.
There are so many variables that can influence your success in calling birds into the best spot for photos; it can take quite a bit of practise to get a knack for it.
What kind of birds is it effective with?
Songbirds are the most common target of photographers using audio calls, but it can work on many different types of birds, from ducks and grebes to rails and raptors, with varying success.
1) Only play the song a handful of times when you’re on a nesting territory. Continuous play can harm the bird and cause it to abandon the nest.
2) Avoid using this technique at popular locations where the same birds are likely to be called by other bird photographers, which can result in cumulative stress.
3) NEVER use this technique on endangered or protected species. Not only is it illegal, but it can threaten the survival of the bird.
4) Calling birds is prohibited in many parks. Even if there isn’t a specific regulation against calling birds, you could be charged with harassment of wildlife. If in doubt, check with park officials.
The use of audio devices to call in species of birds for photography can be fun and may yield some great images. Just remember, however, to be respectful of these birds and their behaviour as well as the laws set up to protect them.
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