Office of Law Enforcement
Pacific Region



March 2011

Imitation may be the Sincerest Form of Flattery but Can it Harm Birds?

Photographer and bird watcher at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
Photographer and bird watcher at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.Photo credit: USFWS

Birds are beautiful, colorful and graceful animals.  The more you look at them, the more you start to notice amazing details:  the way their feathers lay, their coloring, what they are attracted to, how they fly, and the various calls they make.  No one knows this better than birders and bird photographers.

Birders are people who identify and study birds in their natural habitats.  Bird photographers use their cameras to shoot birds in their natural habitats.  Birders and photographers spend quite a bit of time learning to identify bird species by their appearance and calls.  Many times, they are able to recognize a species of bird just by hearing its call or seeing it soar far above the ground at a great distance. 

Birders and bird photographers develop keen eyes and ears and spend time in marshes and forests to catch glimpses or shots of some of our most beautiful resources.  Seeing the birds can be quite rewarding and fosters a deep respect for nature. 

Birders and bird photographers sometimes have check lists of bird species and check off each species as they see and identify them in the wild.  It can be quite exciting for a birder to see a species they haven’t seen before or a species they know is rare.  Think about the first time you ever saw an eagle.  Even for non-birders, seeing an eagle is usually an exciting and memorable experience.  It inspires a feeling of awe and a sense that you are privileged to be witnessing the eagles in their natural habitat.  Unfortunately, zealous birders can sometimes be a problem for the birds they seek.

Birders and bird photographers, for example, may harm birds by using “call playback” or “tape luring” to get a bird to show itself.


A call playback machine used for recording and broadcasting bird calls.
This is one type of a call playback machine.  It can record and broadcast bird calls.  Photo credit: Nicolas Esposito / Wikimedia Commons

Call playback consists of playing species-specific recorded bird calls in the wilderness to draw out birds.  This gives birders or photographers an opportunity to see or photograph the birds in the wild.  When the species of bird is one protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA), using the call playback method can actually amount to a violation of this law.  Under the ESA, it is illegal to kill, harass, harm, hunt, shoot, wound, trap, capture, collect, or attempt to engage in any of this type of conduct with listed species. 

Flock of Sooty Terns.
Flock of Sooty Terns.  Photo credit: Dino Sassy and Marcel Fayon / Wikimedia Commons


Most of the prohibited behaviors under the ESA are easily understood, however, “harass” and “harm” require further explanation.  Harass under the ESA means an act which creates the likelihood of injury to wildlife by annoying it to such an extent as to significantly disrupt normal behavioral patterns such as breeding, feeding or sheltering.  Harm under the ESA means an act which actually kills or injures wildlife including significant habitat modification that impairs essential behavioral patterns such as feeding, breeding and sheltering.

Actions meeting the “harass” and “harm” criteria for species of birds listed under the ESA could include playing recordings of bird calls.  Male birds may expend energy responding to perceived threats or “competitors” instead of sheltering or feeding; these actions may expose the bird to predators as well.  Female birds may search for the male whose call she hears and may leave her nest and her eggs unprotected.  As you can see, hearing recorded calls can prompt birds to act in ways that can significantly disrupt normal behavioral patterns including feeding, breeding and sheltering.  

Be aware that there may be other times when playing a call back may be against the law.  For example, according to 50 CFR 27.72 it is illegal to play audio of bird calls (or any audio that might disturb other visitors) when you are on a National Wildlife Refuge. 

The National Park Service also has regulations against playing audio found at 36 CFR 2.12.  Audio devices are prohibited if operated in a manner that either exceeds 50 decibels, or is operated in an unreasonable manner taking into consideration the surroundings, time of day, purpose, impact and other factors. 

State law may also restrict using call playbacks.  Contact your regional U.S. Fish and Wildlife Office or your state fish and wildlife department to find out what restrictions exist.

Birding and taking pictures of birds can be a fun activity that brings individuals closer to nature but it is important to do so without harming the birds.  The American Birding Association promotes a wise general birding principle:  “Everyone who enjoys birds and birding must always respect the wildlife, its environment, and the rights of others.  In any conflict of interest between birds and birders, the welfare of the birds and their environment comes first.”

To contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about this piece or to report a violation you have witnessed, please go to and click on the “contact us” link at the top of the page.

Birders enjoying birds at the Klamath Marsh National Wildlife Refuge in 1905.
Birders have been enjoying birds for centuries as this picture taken at the Klamath Marsh National Wildlife Refuge in 1905 demonstrates.   Photo credit: USFWS


Last updated: December 3, 2013

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