Photograph by Don Grall, Visuals Unlimited/Corbis

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A male elegant trogon sitting on a tree branch.

Photograph by Don Grall, Visuals Unlimited/Corbis

The Ethical Flap Over Birdsong Apps

Want to get chummy with a chickadee? There's an app for that. But is it good for the birds?

Part of our weekly "In Focus" series—stepping back, looking closer.

Last April I was leading a group of beginning birders along a trail beside the Arkansas River, helping them learn to spot and identify some of the dozens of species present on this beautiful spring morning. At one point I heard a distinctive song coming from a thicket: the wichity-wichity-wichity of a male common yellowthroat.

Now, common yellowthroats are indeed common where I live, not to say abundant—but that doesn't mean they're easy to see. These little wood-warblers prefer to stay hidden in dense vegetation, and if they perch within view it's usually for only a couple of seconds before disappearing again.

I pulled out my mobile phone, told the group to gather around, and played a recording of the common yellowthroat song from a bird-watching application I'd downloaded. The male almost immediately hopped up to the limb of a shrub and posed for us, to the accompaniment of oohs and aahs from viewers admiring its bright-yellow breast and black "bandit" mask. Most of the people in the group had never seen a common yellowthroat before, and in fact didn't even know the species existed.

What I did is the subject of serious and ever-intensifying debate in the birding community—the equivalent in polarization potential of asking baseball fans if the National League should adopt the designated hitter. The normally shy male yellowthroat approached us because he thought my phone was another male of his species, a rival for his territory and his mate. The male we saw was ready to challenge, and even fight, the intruder. I cost him a little bit of energy, a little bit of time, and a little bit of stress, just so a few newbie bird-watchers could look at him.