Calling the Birds: Conservation Vs Obsession

The term ‘Birding’ refers to the popular form of observing and record keeping of birds by serious hobbyists and professionals alike. However, this term also acts as delimiter to the field of ornithology, which is rather a more systematic appraisal of the facts about birds. Nevertheless, birders have always added considerably to our understanding of birds, thereby contributing to science in general and bird conservation in particular.

Birding in Northeast India is booming at present, a trend that was promoted by a handful of amateur nature lovers in the early nineties. Prior to the availability of internet and other popular communication media, most of the bird records were either personal collections or pieces in popular magazines and semi-scientific newsletters. With the advent of internet based platforms, such as bird databases and communities on different social media platforms, there was a sudden surge in the number of hobbyists watching birds, keeping records and taking photographs. Globally, information on birds, particularly their distribution, population status and conservation status etc. are readily available on websites of organisations such as Birdlife International, while other more interactive data sharing platforms like eBird provide real time records submitted by birders worldwide. Websites of organisations such as Oriental Bird Club reserves some of the largest collections of bird photographs. Ironically, amongst all these databases that mean serious business in birding, it is now social media such as Facebook, which provide the most popular platform for regular interaction amongst the birders.

More birders mean more people visiting areas with high bird diversity, an apparent boon for local tourism. If tourism is promoted and local economy is supplemented by bird tourism, it gives an obvious reason for people to protect birds in their locality. The problem, though not recognised even by many seasoned birders, lies in the behaviour of some people in the field. Amongst other issues, a particularly common way of luring birds is to play its own call in the possible habitat of a species, a practice known as call-playback. Call-playbacks were earlier restricted to only serious workers, particularly biologists in need of a way to detect the presence of otherwise a shy and rare bird that won’t come out to open sight. Now for an amateur, getting bird call recordings becomes easy due to internet databases, which can readily be downloaded and played to attract the target species. Bird guides all over the world uses call-playback as a tool to show birds to their tourist clients. Excessive use of calls may have serious consequences and this is where the problem lies.

To Communicate or Deceive?

Most bird species use calls to communicate, a fact known to most of us. What is not known to many is that most of the birds have different types of calls, some are called songs, others may be called contact calls, or, at times, there may be alarm calls. Birds do not utter all the calls all the time. When a bird sings to attract its mate during breeding time, it trades off a considerable amount of time out of its daily schedule consisting of other regular activities, such as feeding and resting. Now, excessive call playback at one location may affect its normal response towards stimuli that makes a species ready for breeding or gives a false impression of the presence of competing individuals in its range. Response to call playback by a bird may trigger unnecessary trade off with its regular activities, thereby jeopardizing its possibilities of survival.

You may now be expecting that I would recommend a total ban on bird call playback in the Northeast! I, however, do not advocate a total ban. Rather, my opinion is that a greater sense of awareness needs to be generated amongst the birders and bird guides so as not to let their passion turn into an obsession. The conservation benefits of bird based tourism that many at times depend on call playback as a tool should not be ignored. At times, such tools help in recording new information on birds that enhances the conservation significance of a particular area. Therefore, a complete ban on this practice is neither practically achievable nor recommended. The birding community of the Northeast, whose inherent love for birds is not being questioned here, has a greater responsibility in creating awareness amongst all those who are involved in bird based tourism in the region.

Reproduced from my published piece in Eclectic Northeast November 2015

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