Birds changed their tune during the Covid lockdown

Photo credit: Paul Knittel from Pexels

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

In several blogs I have written recently, I commented that the pandemic’s effect on the soundscape did not just impact humans but other species as well, e.g. birds, whales. A recent article on a study of birds in San Francisco found that birds started singing differently during the silence of the COVID-19 Lockdown, noting that male white-crowned sparrows in San Francisco have begun to sing more softly and with an improved vocal range. The article says this change in singing may make them “sexier to females.”

The article cites a paper that has studied how animals, including whales and birds, have changed their behaviors during the pandemic shutdown. Before the pandemic, cities characterized by loud noises, especially from traffic, forced birds to sing louder to be heard by other birds. The authors reached this finding by comparing birdsong data collected previous years at the same sites they collected data during April and May 2020. Their data allowed them to conclude that birds “can adapt to changing environments.”

Erik Stokstad, writing for Science, states that birdsong “recaptured its former glory,” referring to the white-crowned sparrows of San Francisco. He adds that when birds sing louder in noisy environments the stress created “can speed aging and disrupt their metabolisms.” With the noise also preventing birds from hearing their own chicks, there is the possibility that bird diversity is less in many cities. Furthermore, by demonstrating that some birds can adjust their songs to their environment, it might be that birds who could not adjust, and as a result left noisier cities, might return to places that are now quieter. But the quieter time of the pandemic has passed as cities have been returning to noisier times. Thus, the birds that have quieted down will very likely have to increase the volume of their songs. Also, may I add, that it is unlikely the birds who left will return.

Stokstad interviewed Elizabeth Danberry and her behavioral ecologists who have studied white-crowned sparrows in and around San Francisco for more than twenty years. Their research has clearly demonstrated the impact of noise pollution on the health and well-being of these sparrows. Similarly, long standing research has also clearly found that noise is hazardous to human hearing, health, and well-being. So I ask, how much more research do we need linking noise to adverse effects on humans and other species before we begin to lower decibel level in our environment?

Dr. Arline Bronzaft is a researcher, writer, and consultant on the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health. She is co-author of “Why Noise Matters,” author of “Listen to the Raindrops” (children’s book illustrated by Steven Parton), and has written extensively about noise in books, encyclopedias, academic journals, and the popular press.  In addition, she is a Professor Emerita of the City University of New York and Board member of GrowNYC.

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