The omission of bird calls from the recommended steps to follow when trying to identify an unfamiliar bird is intentional.
Bird calls, beware!
Many birders put a great premium on bird calls as a means of identification. Of course, the calls of many of our birds are distinctive and can hardly be mistaken. Such calls can (unofficially!?) be relied upon for identification purposes, for instance:
African Fish Eagle (Visarend)
Crested Barbet (Kuifkophoutkapper)
Grey Go-away-bird (Kwêvoël)
Furthermore, for experienced birders in particular, bird calls can be very useful when dealing with many LBJ’s (little brown jobs / klein vaal voëltjies) and other “difficult” birds. Differentiating between a Karoo Prinia and the similar looking Namaqua Warbler is a case in point – both birds are very active, are sometimes encountered in thick vegetation, when light conditions may be less than ideal, and, of course, spotting both species together is a rare occurrence. As a result, the clear differences between the species, as depicted in the following two photographs, may not be all that obvious.
Karoo Prinia (Karoolangstertjie)
Namaqua Warbler (Namakwalangstertjie)
Consequently, many birders equip themselves with all kinds of gadgets and apps, and on a birding excursion continuously play back recordings of bird calls.
However, many, if not all, really serious, experienced birders don’t acknowledge an identification of a bird based on the call only – one has to see a bird and make an identification founded on other features as well.
Objections to the practice of relying on calls only as a means of identifying birds are well-based, in particular regarding birds the observer is unfamiliar with. This process is fraught with pitfalls, especially for the inexperienced and people with a “bad ear”. For instance:
Although actually quite different, the calls of various species with a similar type of call can be difficult to differentiate, e.g. African Hoopoe (Hoephoep), Tambourine Dove (Witborsduifie) and Acacia Pied Barbet (Bonthoutkapper).
Acacia Pied Barbet (Bonthoutkapper)
Many species of birds have a variety of calls, e.g. Southern Boubou (Suidelike Waterfiskaal), Dark-backed weaver (Bosmusikant) and Bokmakierie. A recording of the call of such a bird may not reflect all the variations in call the bird is capable of, and you might find yourself on a wild goose chase!
Some birds are adept at mimicking the calls of other birds, e.g. several species of robin-chat (janfrederik), Chestnut-vented Warbler / Titbabler (Bosveldtjeriktik), both species of drongo (byvanger) and Cape White-eye (Kaapse Glasogie), to name a few.
Cape White-eye (Kaapse Glasogie)
From these examples it should be clear that relying on the call only may in many instances lead to an unsound(!) result. Furthermore, if one doesn’t consider other identifying features of a bird to at least determine to which group a bird belongs, trying to find a strange bird call amongst those of hundreds of birds that occur in any region in Southern Africa can often be an almost impossible task. Therefore, it is suggested that, in general, at most a bird call should be regarded as only one of the features to be taken into account when attempting to identify an unfamiliar bird.
For me, perhaps the greatest advantage of having mastered the skill of recognising bird calls lies in the fact that birds often betray their presence by calling, and the experienced birder will know which bird to look for and where. Quite a number of secretive birds will otherwise very seldom be spotted, e.g.:
Sombre Greenbul (Gewone Willie)
Lesser Honeyguide (Kleinheuningwyser)
The practice of playing back recordings of bird calls while on a birding excursion, aimed at luring birds to betray their presence, is frowned upon. The objection is an ethical one, as birds often find it very upsetting and stressful, for instance:
- While searching for the “intruder”, territorial species might neglect other duties such as defending the territory against real intruders, nesting duties and feeding chicks.
- Luring birds to where they can easily be spotted will often have the consequence that they are more exposed to predation.
- Needless to say, playing back a recording of a raptor’s call may upset the apple cart completely!
Keep in mind that any of these negative consequences may also unintentionally come about when playing back recordings of bird calls while birding!
Lastly, luring birds in such a manner is a real slothful way of doing bird watching. It can be compared to feeding birds (and other animals) for the sole purpose of ticking off species – there is no skill involved of finding and observing birds in their natural environment. I repeat my first remark in this series, “Bird watching (or birding) encompasses activities such as spotting birds, identifying them and observing their habits and behaviour.”