It used to be that if you wanted to identify the flora and fauna in your surroundings, you had to study for years or carry burdensome tomes with you everywhere you went. Today, with the help of smartphone apps, anyone can identify birds, bugs, plants and trees with just a few swipes of a touchscreen. But will this technology endanger the natural world as it makes us more familiar with it?
Recently, a birdsong app has ruffled the feathers of conservationists in England. The Dorset Wildlife Trust reported that visitors to Brownsea Island were using apps that imitate birdsongs in an effort to lure the creatures out so they could be photographed.
Tony Whitehead, public affairs officer for the RSPB, Europe's largest conservation charity, told the BBC : "Repeatedly playing a recording of birdsong or calls to encourage a bird to respond in order to see it or photograph it can divert a territorial bird from other important duties, such as feeding its young."
iSpiny, developers of birding apps for iOS devices, told the BBC that they welcomed a discussion on the ethics of using recorded birdsongs.
Maybe we need to ban cellphones from nature preserves like some movie theaters ban the texting and making phone calls during movies?
The Cornell Guide to Bird Sounds: Master Set for North America features 4,938 cuts representing nine decades of work by more than 300 sound recordists, researchers, and archivists who have attempted to record the sound repertoires of 735 bird species that regularly breed in North America.
The master set is part of the Lab of Ornithology's mission to educate the public about birds and conservation. I reached out to the director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Macaulay Library, Dr. Mike Webster, for his take on the use of birdsong recordings and apps in the field.
"Responsible use of birding and birdsong apps likely has minimal harm to most birds. The key here, though is 'responsible use'," he writes. "Like many things, apps like these can be abused if people are not careful or do not know about the potential negative impacts."
All of the lab's sound collections come with a warning recommending that playback be used sparingly, and that playback during nesting should be avoided completely. There are other sounds, like bird alarm calls, that should only be played with permission and for scientific study.
Webster says most users of bird sounds and apps do not use them with the intent to cause harm to birds. "Most birders are nature lovers, and most are responsible. They don't want to cause harm to the animals that they love."
Illustrated bird guides opened up bird watching to people who would never have had the opportunity to learn about and interact with birds. Smartphone birding apps are just the natural evolution of illustrated guides. And for the most part, they are a positive influence.
"The key to protecting birds, and our planet for that matter, is to get people engaged and get them to care about the nature," says Webster. "Educational tools that are engaging, and that help people understand and enjoy nature, are an excellent way to do just that."
To their credit, iSpiny developers recently updated their Facebook page to note that they would be updating the app description to include a suggestion not to play sounds that attract birds that are rare or those that are in breeding season.
Hilary Wilson, who oversees the Chirp! app for iSpiny, shares some background information that may put things into perspective. In our email exchange, she said the controversy hatched when two bird photographers used a recording of a nightjar, a rare nocturnal bird, to entice the bird out during the day so that it could be photographed. The nature reserve was understandably horrified and soon banned the use of mobile devices on the reserve.
"We have been discussing the appropriateness of playing recorded birdsongs in the field since cassette tapes were a novelty," writes Paul Baicich. "Alas, today it is even easier to access and play bird recordings in the field. It is too easy, too tempting."
Baicich, a birder since he was a teen, is co-author of "A Guide to the Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds" and is the webmaster of Great Birding Projects.
"The situation in the U.K. is different from the situation in the USA. More birders per capita, fewer places to bird, and resulting in more crowding in the U.K. This alignment of factors can lead to problems as discussed."
For Baicich, the hoi polloi descending on nature with a smartphone app that plays sounds isn't the biggest threat that endangered birds and the hobby of birding in America are facing.
"We're simply too white, and we birders simply don't look enough like the rest of the country," Baicich said in an email exchange. "Without extra efforts to bring the joys of the outdoors to Latinos, African-Americans, and other 'minorities' (which will add up to be majorities in many states shortly), the future of birding is not good ... The pastime will marginalize itself, and the possibilities of bringing environmental concerns to a broad American public through the vehicle of engaging people to nature through birds will be lost."
As birding apps become more popular and their ethical uses in the field are made clearer to the average user, there will still be plenty of opportunities for fun.
One Chirp! app user summed it up nicely: "I can't get enough of birdsong ID app #Chirp!+. Mainly, I like startling my wife with the unique hoot of the puffin." And of course, he said it on Twitter.