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Wednesday, September 6, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Heard those birds when golf's on TV? It might be a tape

The Washington Post

The Buick Open was in Michigan, so why was the silvery song of a canyon wren - a bird never seen east of Texas - heard on the TV broadcast?

Later last month, during a broadcast of the PGA Championship in Kentucky, birders picked up the thin whistle of a white-throated sparrow, not a bird of summer in the South. Recently, that sparrow called again in a place it does not belong - Ohio, during the NEC Invitational.

E-mails flew, between friends and on birding chat lists. Did you hear what I heard? Was it possible that CBS, which broadcast those tournaments, was dubbing in taped bird calls for viewers at home?

Well, yes.

"They have used a (taped) cartridge at one time or another," said Leslie Ann Wade, vice president of communications for CBS Sports. Producers try to use local bird sounds - even putting out a dish of birdseed next to a microphone at tournament sites - but cannot always get "ambient sound," and therefore turn to tapes, she said.

Spokesmen for ABC and NBC deny their networks use taped calls or even bird mikes, although some viewers say they heard some out-of-place birds during the ABC prime-time broadcast Aug. 28 from California featuring Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia.

Some birders are thrilled that networks want to broadcast any bird sounds - and so what if they are misplaced? Everyone knows that TV dresses up the real world. Others, already down on golf courses because their manicured lawns are not bird-friendly, are more ambivalent. A few are displeased.

"It's deceitful and overkill - just how perfect do they want us to think it is out there?" groused birder John Malcolm of Gaithersburg, Md. "Why not dub in harp music and rainbows for certain crucial holes?"

"Besides," he added, "it messes up our harmless little hobby" - keeping lists of birds heard during golf tournaments.

Birders are fanatic list-keepers. Lists are a way of pinning down a fleeting, sensory experience. They are a means of collecting birds, just as some people collect stamps or antiques, but without bringing them home. For some, they offer a vehicle to compete with other list-keepers.

A list of the types of lists birders keep would fill this newspaper, but here are a few: Birds in their yards. Birds in parking lots. Birds on telephone poles. Birds outside the office window. Birds on the commute to work.

Birds in commercials or movie soundtracks are a special favorite, because they often are wrong for the time or place. Birders know, for example, that the movie "The Last of the Mohicans," set in New York, was made in North Carolina because they can identify the calls. It was like seeing palm trees at the North Pole.

It is a special thrill to spot a mistake - a "kind of birders' one-upmanship," in the words of Lola Oberman, a veteran birder from Bethesda, Md. It shows they know their stuff. And these days, with good quality bird-song tapes widely available, the fashion is to bird by ear, not just by sight.

YuLee Larner, a past president of the Virginia Society of Ornithology who lives in Staunton, Va., became convinced something odd was going on when she noticed the sparrows at recent golf tournaments sang "the same thing over and over and over again."

Birds just don't do that. They vary their song, she said. Besides, she pointed out, sparrows do not sing much in summer, after the springtime competition for territory and mates.

"It just seems funny to me," she said. "They try to make things sound natural, but a little bit of research would tell producers where birds would be. They probably didn't think people were paying any attention."

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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