Legislation regarding tape playback

To: Ian May <>
Subject: Legislation regarding tape playback
From: Chris Sanderson <>
Date: Fri, 5 Jun 2009 12:05:43 +1000
Hi all,

I think the QLD law is being taken slightly out of context here.  You are
assuming it was aimed at solely at stopping birders going birding.  Syd
Curtis, the person who actually helped draft this law, has posted to the
list about it before. I've appended one such email.  I understand also that
these days QPWS see it as a way of keeping rogue guides in check, as they
have had problems particularly in Laminton NP with badly behaved tour guides
overusing playback to the point of taping out birds, and then going further
and getting their groups to beat the bushes to try and make those birds come
out.  Personally I agree with the spirit of the law, which is: if what you
are doing is causing a bird distress - stop doing it!  Shouldn't just apply
to tapes.


Message from Syd Curtis re: tape playback law:

Tom Wilson, on 15 Sep 2008, drew attention to a report of a playback

> "Why Birds Sing" by David Rothenberg (my copy Penguin, 2005) refers to
> playback experiments, but I don't think they were testing for the effects
> that Graham is concerned about.  However, there is one anecdote in the
> (pp207/8) about playback of an Albert's Lyrebird's song straight back to
> him, which generated a very distressed response from the bird.
> Cheers
> Tom Wilson

As Rothenberg was quoting me, may I offer my account of the event.  I
apologise for the long posting - if not of interest, delete now.

On the 1st of June, 1968 I went lyrebird recording for the first time, and
got a reasonable recording using a parabolic reflector.  I found where the
bird was performing, and the next morning put my mic at that spot with a
cable back to a large tree for my concealment.  With a huge amount of
beginner¹s luck, I got my recording.   When he stopped singing, I replayed
the tape to hear what I¹d got ­ through the recorder's built-in speaker. He
immediately returned and sang again. Again I recorded.

A few days later I was back in the same area, and I wondered if he would
again react to the recording. He did, and while racing through the forest
trying to find the supposed intruding male, he gave some strange calls that
I had never heard before.  Back then, I was totally ignorant of the distress
that a territorial bird suffers if you record his voice and play it back at
him.   I would never do so now, but on that day, because it was so difficult
to record the moving bird, I persisted with playback.

Although all Albert¹s Lyrebirds (with a very few exceptions) are so shy that
they don't tolerate a human observer, that poor bird finally perched in full
view of me and poured forth a remarkable torrent of sound, which I recorded
and which Rothenberg describes in his book.

It was an amazing performance which lasted five minutes and was clearly
intended as the ultimate in lyrebird threats against the supposed intruder
that he could not locate visually.  There were three distinct sections:

1.  For 2 minutes he set the scene by imitating a lot of local sounds,
mostly birds, but also a frog, and the whistle of a neighbouring farmer
calling his dog.  It included alarm notes, both his own and other bird

2.  Then for over a minute he mimicked the call of a Grey Goshawk, with
short periods of ominous silence, and no other sounds.

3.  Finally two more minutes in which he first repeated sounds as in the
first section, before proceeding to sounds of extreme avian distress.

It demonstrated an intelligence, far beyond that normally attributed to

I will send the recording to the Australian Wildlife Sound Recording Group
and feel sure it will be used in the CD to be included with the December
issue of the Group's journal "AudioWings".  So if you wish to hear it but
are not already a member, apply to the Secretary/Treasurer, Howard
Plowright, for information on how to join the Group:


Although what my lyrebird friend intended was murder rather than music, it
was clearly a voice drama in three scenes.  And since we refer to bird
vocalisations as "singing", I've tended to regard it as an "operetta", and
on that basis sent it to the French composer Olivier Messiaen who used bird
song extensively in his compositions.  (Some years later I had the pleasure
of taking him to hear an Albert's Lyrebird and he represented it in his last
major work which was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic.)

For anyone who may read Rothenberg's book, I need to elaborate on one
important point.  He quotes me as saying that as on officer in the
Queensland Parks Service I had "drafted a regulation effectively making it
illegal to play a tape of a lyrebird in any Queensland national park".

That was fine in the context, but is an over-simplification for a specific
discussion on playback.

In 1987 one of my tasks was to prepare a draft of national park regulations.
By then it was well appreciated that playback of song to a territorial bird
can cause serious interference to the birds domestic activities.  My draft
had to be approved (or otherwise) by, successively, the Service Director,
the Minister, Cabinet and Parliament.  My considered opinion was that their
appreciation of the effect of playback would be unlikely to extend to
agreeing to the desirability of such a regulation.  So what I drafted, and
what appears in the "Nature Conservation Regulation 1994" (SL No. 473 of
1994), was this:

   "A person must not use a radio, tape recorder, or other sound or
amplifier system in a way that may cause unreasonable disturbance to a
person or native animal in a protected area."

("animal" includes "bird" in that context.)

So it is not necessarily a breach of the regulation to play a tape of a
lyrebird in a Queensland national park;  but it is an offence to use
playback on any bird if it causes that bird "unreasonable disturbance".

Syd Curtis

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