Roads calmed by the pandemic are filled with birdsong

New research shows that roads and tracks silenced by COVID-19 are filling with birdsong.

Scientists at the University of Manitoba led a study based on millions of sightings by amateur birders in North America that looked at how reduced travel in response to the pandemic has affected birds, from hawks to hummingbirds.

“We are focusing on where birds were seen during the pandemic compared to where they were seen in previous years,” said lead author Nicola Koper.

“We saw pretty strong changes in where birds were seen relative to … traffic before the pandemic compared to during the pandemic.”

To find answers, Koper and his colleagues turned to eBird, an online collaboration run by Cornell University that collects and organizes the observations of hundreds of thousands of amateur birders.

The team analyzed 4.3 million individual bird sightings made between March and May 2017 to 2020 in Canada and the United States. They located those sightings in relation to major roads, airports, and dense urban environments, statistically offsetting how the pandemic may have affected bird watchers’ behavior.

They then correlated those sightings with data on COVID-19 restrictions in each county that they were able to obtain information from. Koper said the method ensures that any changes are due to pandemic measures.

“If the effects are really due to the roadblocks, then we should see the biggest changes in behavior in the places that have the biggest changes in traffic, near major highways, airports, and in the counties that had the strongest roadblocks.”

That is exactly what they found. Of the 82 species of birds in the study, 80 percent of them changed their behavior in places where the pandemic had altered circumstances.

“Almost all of the species we studied changed locations,” Koper said.

Bird sightings were almost always more abundant after the pandemic. Species were 14 times more likely to show increased rather than decreased counts.

From hawks to hummingbirds: study finds roads silenced by COVID-19 filled with birdsong. # COVID9 #Birds #HábitatLoss

The observation held up even with birds seen most frequently in built environments – robins, for example.

“Even those species that we think are well adapted to human landscapes are much more sensitive to them than we think,” Koper said. “These common species have been much more affected by humans than we recognized.”

Some species sightings decreased. Coots, a common white-billed water bird in swamps and wetlands, were seen less frequently.

And some species went up and down, depending on where you looked. Red-tailed hawks were seen most often along urban-rural margins, but less frequently near busy roads.

“Maybe it had to do with fewer outrages,” Koper suggested.

The lesson from the research is that human-affected environments, even those covered in asphalt, are not necessarily dead zones for birds. Given some consideration, Koper said that the birds will live there.

“There are many things we can do to reduce traffic,” he said.

Public transportation would cut cars on the roads. I would also work from home. Electric vehicles would at least reduce noise.

“There is a habitat that is not being fully used by birds,” Koper said. “It is adequate except for the presence of traffic.”

Previous studies have found that the number of birds in Canada and the United States has decreased by 29 percent over the past 50 years. Habitat loss is the biggest reason and anything that gives the birds more space to live would help, Koper said.

“Habitat loss is the biggest problem facing birds today.”

This Canadian Press report was first published on September 22, 2021.

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