Montana Audubon

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Birding and Technology

By David Cronenwett

A pronounced trend in birding lately is the proliferation of handheld devices loaded with avian-specific software. For a while, I thought myself a pretty hip guide by using a sophisticated bird “app” on my iPod. With it, I could quickly reference a species including recordings of its songs, images, population information and other natural history data. Once, I even played a gag on a renown bird-nerd friend of mine, effectively convincing him that there was a Canada Warbler flitting around the willows of a high Montana valley.

After three years of using it in the field, I now have reservations about their casual employment in a birding context. There is scant data on how widespread electronic recordings alters bird behavior. However, it isn’t difficult to imagine locations where birds could be subjected to an onslaught of recordings each day. Birders (myself included) often use digital playback to lure species in for a closer look. Male songbirds are highly territorial, particularly during the breeding season, and interpret the song from one of its own kind as an indication that another male is challenging him for territory or mates. The response is that one bird will try to run the other out of the area, which takes significant energy. If birds are being assaulted by waves of recordings, they are spending calories to defend territories for no reason whatsoever.

There is probably little harm done in lightly visited habitats, so long as the technology is not abused. But there aren’t yet well-established or agreed upon ethical protocols to guide our behavior. In places where large numbers of birders gather, it is not unreasonable to describe the heavy use of recordings as a kind of wildlife harassment. Add to this our default tendency to think that our own actions with regard to such things are innocuous, and we have a real problem.

More research on impacts to birds is clearly needed but we should also consider what using bird apps is doing to us and our experiences in the field. There is software currently in development that can identify birds simply by their calls, not unlike apps that can identify a song playing on the radio. Likely, there will be programs before long that can do the same with the captured image of a bird. Obviously as a guide, I have a personal interest in this, since it could render my profession obsolete. But there is a deeper issue here; when a device simply hands you an answer to an identification problem, we are not forced to exercise our own visual/auditory acuity. We needn’t probe or exercise our memory about previous experiences with a bird, its habitat, or the others who were there with us. In effect, we don’t have to pay attention or be fully present.

Certainly, there is a place for these tools; they are an excellent aid to learning bird songs for example. I often turn to my device to check on an unfamiliar vocalization; in this way it helps to cement new information in my mind. The danger is when we completely rely on the technology to remember for us. A growing body of evidence suggests that society’s move to store most information externally has begun to physically atrophy our brains’ memory system. It is well-documented with the use of GPS units in vehicles; people who rely on them have notably reduced spatial memory ability. There is some concern that an overall trend of “memory export” could be accelerating early onset dementia in the population.

Another interesting problem with digital playback: how can we be certain of what we are hearing out there? Is that really a rare bird in the forest, or someone else trying to call one in? Also possible: could it be a person trying to intentionally deceive? The potential for misidentification or skewed data collection is very real, especially given the growing numbers of devices in use out there.

Handheld devices present many problems that we are just beginning to identify and not just with birding, but with all aspects of life. They distract and enable addictive, compulsive behaviors. They can erode our focus and ability for deep, sustained contemplation. True, digital bird applications can be an aid to learning, but my fear is that while something is gained here, there is a danger that more could be lost and disturbing problems created. In our world of digital distraction and bombardment, perhaps our time on the landscape chasing birds should be consciously low-tech. Sometimes, appropriate use should mean leaving the electronics at home.

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