Noise and wildlife

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.

Marine noise may harm lobsters

Photo credit: Roger Brown from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Research has shown that noise is unhealthy for humans, birds and small mammals, fishes and marine mammals, and now for lobsters.

Yahoo! News reports on an Australian study showing that lobsters living near a busy shipping lane had damage to their statocyst, an organ equivalent to the parts of the human inner ear controlling balance. The damage was similar to that caused by high intensity seismic air guns used in underwater exploration for gas and oil. Surprisingly, the lobsters didn’t appear to have any changes in their behavior nor was their righting reflex damaged–they were able to turn back to right side up after being turned upside down.

I suspect it’s harder to assess changes in lobster behavior than in mammals or humans, though, and there has to be some impact of the statocyst damage that research will eventually reveal.

The basic principle is that living organisms need energy exposure to survive, but too much energy exposure causes harm. This is true for plants, which need sun for photosynthesis but which are damaged by greater sun exposure caused by climate change; for humans, who need sun exposure to convert vitamin D to its active form, but can get sunburned and eventually deep wrinkles, pigmentation, and skin cancer from too much sun exposure; and for all animals, who use sound for finding food, avoiding prey, communicating, and entertainment, but are damaged by excess noise exposure.

For humans, remember: if it sounds loud, it is too loud, and auditory damage will inevitably occur.

Avoid loud noise exposure or wear earplugs if you can’t.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Sometimes we need to put up with noise

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Sometimes people have to put up with noise. This fun piece from the Atlas Obscura folks describes a noisy rooster on the French vacation island of Ile d’Oléron. Summer visitors filed a noise complaint with the local authorities, who ruled in the rooster’s favor.

Corrine Dessau, the rooster’s owner, commented that “[t]here’s always been noise in the countryside: frogs, tractors, and, yes, roosters. When you’re in the countryside, you accept the noises of the countryside. And when you’re in the city, you accept the noises of the city. If you don’t like the noise where you are, don’t stay there.”

I would disagree about urban noise. Much if not most of urban noise can be quieted.

But in the countryside, a rooster’s wake up call is part of the charm, and visitors should get used to it.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Beluga whales sing better in a quiet ocean

Photo credit: Diliff licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

I first saw beluga whales in the aquarium in Vancouver, Canada, and then last year in the wild in Canadian arctic waters. They are marvelous creatures, with a bulbous head that helps them vocalize and hear the vocalizations of other belugas.

A National Geographic television show discusses research showing that belugas sing better in quieter oceans.

For belugas, noise from ship motors is like ambient noise in a too-noisy restaurant. It makes conversation difficult.

Quiet is better for both animals and people.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Quiet Salish Sea lets scientists study endangered killer whales

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

When I saw this article about scientists studying killer whales in the Salish Sea, the first question I had was, “Where is the Salish Sea?” A quick online search revealed that it’s the complex set of waterways near Canada’s Vancouver Island, including the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Puget Sound, and the Strait of Georga and Johnstone Strait separating the island from the mainland. Increasing noise levels have been harming killer whales there, who rely on sound for communication and for echolocating food.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, there has been a 30% decrease in commercial shipping traffic into the Port of Vancouver from China. Decreases in other marine traffic have led to a noise reduction of about 75%.

The Salish Sea is murky due to sediments carried from the Simon Fraser River. Killer whales can see 5-10 meters in the water, but can find prey at greater distances and can communicate with others in their pod for kilometers.

Killer whales are also very social and are in almost constant communication with other members of their pods. But shipping noise, which has been doubling almost every decade for three or four decades, interferes with their communication.

We hope the COVID-19 lockdown’s quiet will allow scientists to learn more about killer whales, and that when marine traffic resumes, steps will be taken to make the waters quieter than they have been.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Fireworks noise can be deadly for pets

Photo credit: Nancy Guth from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

My main noise focus has been the adverse effect of noise on humans, but I am aware that noise adversely affects birds, small mammals, and fish and marine mammals, too.

Fireworks noise is especially threatening to pets, and according to this article in the New York Post, can even cause death.

Pet owners should join the chorus of those, in the United States and around the world, calling for quiet fireworks.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Human noise impacts desert animals, too

Photo credit: Ed Dunens licensed under CC BY 2.0

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

Having written about the impacts of noise on health and well-being, I know that noise pollution is experienced beyond large urban cities. A small community may soon find itself exposed to intrusive noises if the motocross raceway proposed for that town is built. If built, a small airport may expose nearby residents to aircraft noise. Jennifer Ibarra, a student at California State University at Fullerton, wondered whether increased use of nearby desert land by human communities would impact desert animals. She was especially concerned about the noises that came along with human encroachment.

She set about studying the effects of noise on the eating behavior of birds and other animals. While birds and other animals found their way to the food study sites in her study, less food was consumed in noise areas than in no-noise areas. She found that in noise areas about 20% less food was consumed, and she considered this a considerable loss in food intake. Ibarra hypothesized that “nearby noise obscured the sounds of approaching predators, and it may have been risky to remain at a site for very long to eat.”  One hopes that additional studies similar to this one could be conducted to validate the findings and lead to suggestions as to how to protect desert birds and animals from harmful noises.

Iberra’s research project on noise, her ecology course, and a visit to the Desert Studies Center have motivated her to seek a career in ecology. She also notes that she was inspired by a most encouraging faculty mentor. As a professor of environmental psychology, I was especially pleased to read about this research project conducted by a college student and know from personal experiences with my own students how extremely talented students are. I wish Jennifer Iberra good luck with her advanced studies and hope to read more articles highlighting noise pollution studies conducted by college students.

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.

Lockdown lets us hear the birds, and lets them hear each other

Photo credit: Pratikxox from Pexels

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

The New York Times recently had an article that featured the birds of New York City. It notes that with the pandemic quieting the usual din of New York City, birds can now lift their voices. It is not only their voices that have been lifted, but their visibility as well. Readers are introduced to thirteen species of birds, some of whom have been commonly present in the city but others who are rarely present. In the past, birds have called out to us but we were less likely to hear them. Now, we can both see and hear these beautiful birds. This pandemic has occurred during the spring when birds are at their peak in the city and so New Yorkers, at a time when there is so much despair and anxiety in our lives, have been given the opportunity to listen to sounds that are so joyous to the ears.

That birds have served to brighten the lives of New Yorkers at this time is underscored by a second Times’ article by Jennifer Ackerman, who writes that not only are more people noticing birds but “[t]he lack of people is indeed being noticed by the wildlife.” With less noise, birds can more easily converse with each other and be more aware of harmful predators.

Ackerman adds that being more exposed to birds may also make us more aware of a species that knows how to navigate the world “in tough times.” Most certainly, people will have to acquire new skills to deal with the obstacles they will be facing after the pandemic shutdown. One hopes that they will also remember the pleasure and comfort of the birdsong they have listened to and understand that noise is harmful to both humans and birds. Such memories may lead to a lessening of the overall din of this city. And that will benefit the city’s dwellers – both humans and birds.

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.

Lessons from “The Great Silence?” Researchers are listening.

Photo credit: Angy DS licensed under CC BY 2.0

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

I’ve been eagerly watching for researchers to probe the effects of this unique, unprecedented period of global silence. Recently, Nick Smith, writing for Engineering And Technology, has reported on academic projects at the Max Planck Institute in Gemany, the British Geological Survey in the UK, New York University in the U.S., and in several other places around the world where researchers are digging into the effects of “anthropogenic noise,” i.e., human-generated industrial noise.

It appears that most of the effort is focused on birds—which would also imply impacts on insects and plants too—but that could just be because Smith was interested in that subject.

The best news is that researchers are actively working on the subject, and therefore we may learn from this moment. As Smith notes, “[a]ssessing the impact that human-generated or anthropogenic noise has on the natural world is fast becoming a growth area in academia.”

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Research during COVID: Biologist studies bird behavior and noise

Photo credit: Tina Nord from Pexels

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

I wondered who was taking advantage of this pandemic-induced quiet to do research on how nature reacts? Sure enough, this young researcher at the College of William and Mary in Virginia is conducting a well-controlled study of the nesting and reproductive behavior of bluebirds–with and without the influence of traffic noise.

Fascinating experimental design. If you’ve heard of other studies, please let us know!

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.