how excess noise and light harm U.S. bird populations

how excess noise and light harm U.S. bird populations

When reading or engaging in discussions about animal welfare, human-wildlife conflict, or zoonotic disease, things can become emotionally-charged very quickly.
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“Pollution.” When most people think of the word, the primary thoughts include oil pollution in the oceans, carbon emissions in the atmosphere, and plastic pollution in both land and sea habitats. Yet, few recognize that there are several more types of pollution that can endanger wildlife.

Noise and light pollution are some of the most widespread types of evolution throughout the world. These harmful byproducts of urbanized life follow humans to every geographic region we raze and inhabit, erect concrete jungles and driving out the natural life that preceded our communities.

Although we can get used to the unnatural glare of the streetlights and glowing business signs in the dark of night, many animals have a hard time acclimating to these types of stimuli. Additionally, the whirring of vehicles in traffic with their honking horns, loud music playing, and the constant murmur of people chatting with one another can drive many species bonkers. One taxon that’s having a tough time with this is birds.

What is Light Pollution?

Light pollution is essentially the over-abundance of light in a given environment. This is extremely damaging to non-human animals, as they rely much more heavily on natural light cycles than we do. We can control the artificial light, so it doesn’t take much to regulate our sleeping cycles.

Birds and other such animals, on the other hand, depend on the natural day-night periods to manage their physiology, mating behaviors, hunting and foraging schedules, and so much more. When sharing space with human populations, many species are in danger of hindered development and reduced fitness due to the excess light we pour into the environment.

What is Noise Pollution?

Noise pollution, just like light pollution, is the excessive presence of noise in an area – specifically, unnatural noise. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the term “noise” itself is defined as “unwanted or disturbing sound.”

This has a just as much of a negative impact on non-human animal welfare as it does for our own wellbeing. One primary example of how this type of pollution impacts animals is that of their reliance on sound while hunting or evading threats.

When the animals cannot hear other organisms, their risk of being hurt or missing a feeding opportunity is significantly increased, which can ultimately harm their individual and collective survivability and fitness.

What Did the Researchers Discover?

Clinton Francis and fellow researchers from California Polytechnic State University led a community science project that discovered alarming effects on bird populations as a direct result of these two pollution types.

As they, along with people across the U.S., reviewed 142 distinct avian species and more than 58,500 bird nests for over a decade (2000-2014), they observed:

  • The date at which birds began laying eggs
  • Birds’ clutch sizes (i.e., how many eggs were laid)
  • Hatching success (i.e., how many laid eggs hatch a viable chick)
  • Clutch and nest success (i.e., survivability of hatched chicks)

Upon analyzing the years of data, it was found that birds that had greater light exposure laid their eggs 3-4 weeks earlier than those with less light exposure. Further, “closed habitats” like forests (with lower light levels) were home to birds that laid 16% larger clutches than those in other habitats.

In terms of noise pollution, birds that experienced higher noise pollution levels suffered smaller clutch sizes in closed habitats, but the same was not true of populations in “open” alternatives like grasslands and wetlands.

Anthropogenic impacts have wrought many types of havoc onto natural spaces and non-human life. If we are to see our world improve in health and biodiversity, our communities must forge a path forward in mitigating these and other pollution types before it’s too late.


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