The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (above) or the Blue-headed Vireo (below, right) are two of the birds likely to appear in Florida shortly after the call of a Screech Owl is heard in the daytime.
The Screech Owl kept calling incessantly. Little birds seemed to be coming from all over, attracted to the call. What’s going on? First of all, it’s strange that the owl is calling in the middle of the day like this, and aren’t all those little birds supposed to be afraid of owls? Let’s find the owl. There it is. It’s not an owl at all; it’s a man playing a tape recording of the owl’s call. But look at all the little birds, homing in on the owl’s call, obviously searching for the bird! And now you know one of the dirty little secrets of successful bird tour leaders.
There is no question that using sounds is an effective way to attract birds. There are three common ways that birders use sounds to call in birds:
1. Pishing, http://10000birds.com/pishing.htm or using one’s own voice to make sounds that will make the birds curious to come and see what is going on, including imitating the Screech Owl whinny, (I have never mastered this technique, but I have heard imitators who are so good, you would think the bird was actually present);
2. Taped Screech Owl recordings, (or in the west, the Pygmy Owl) a generic call that will attract many species of birds; and
3. Taped recordings of the specific species you are trying to attract, which is the most controversial use of imitating calls to attract birds.
The taped calls seem to work because birds are naturally curious, and the pishing sounds simulate the calls of other birds who may have found food, or an owl to harass during the day time, (owls are sworn enemies of little birds, and it is believed that they may make a night time meal of a small bird they find, unhidden, at night). The taped calls of the specific species sought may cause a response out of curiosity, a need to defend a territory or nest site, or even perhaps the seeking of a sexy sounding mate.
My most interesting bird response to a Screech Owl taped call took place a number of years ago, during a Christmas Bird Count, when a Northern Goshawk responded, undoubtedly hoping to find a Screech Owl that could be converted into an easy meal. My most unusual Florida response to a taped Screech Owl call was the arrival of a Least Flycatcher (below, right), a quite rare winter visitor in Florida, along with a whole host of other species, out on Carlton Road, just south of Paleo Hammock. Occasionally a Screech Owl will respond to its own taped call during the day time, but I never had one actually fly in until this past spring in Arizona. Out in Sunflower, AZ, Jewel and I were using the Western Screech Owl (above, left) taped call to attract a good number of western species, from Bewick’s Wren, to Summer Tanager, to Scott’s Oriole, to Ash-throated Flycatcher, when lo and behold, at high noon, a Western Screech Owl landed on a branch directly over our heads and proceeded to call for a full twenty minutes, even though we stopped playing the tape immediately upon his/her arrival.
Here in Florida, in the winter, the first bird that will respond, usually very shortly after the tape starts playing will be either the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher or the Blue-headed Vireo. Shortly after that the White-eyed Vireo (left) will arrive, and the longer the tape plays, Palm, Yellow-rumped and any other warbler species in the area, various woodpeckers, Robins, Cedar Waxwings, Towhees, Blue jays, and any number of additional species will show up. And Jewel is in the market for a taped call that will cause me to respond immediately to come do some chore she has in mind, but if you know of such a tape, please don’t tell her.
Some purists oppose any use of taped calls for birds at any time. The most nuanced discussion of using taped calls that I am aware of is www.sibleyguides.com/2011/04/the-proper-use-of-playback-in-birding/ And the American Birding Association has a policy on the use of recordings as follows: “Limit the use of recordings and other methods of attracting birds, and never use such methods in heavily birded areas, or for attracting any species that is Threatened, Endangered, or of Special Concern, or is rare in your local area.” www.aba.org/about/ethics.html (2/13/13)