Coronavirus shutdown caused Bay Area birds to sing differently

Coronavirus shutdown caused Bay Area birds to sing differently
A white-crowned sparrow is pictured in nature. (Photo: Mick Thompson/Flickr)

COVID-19 has had far-reaching effects, with many people frustrated by the interruption that the virus has had on daily life and operations.

But some bird groups have benefited in different ways in the midst of decreased human impact on nature.

While many fake reports claimed swans had returned to empty Venetian canals, elephants had been seen traversing empty roads more frequently and deer were caught frolicking at empty beaches, one thing is true: White-crowned sparrows in the San Francisco Bay Area produced “higher performance songs” during area shutdowns.

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According to a study published in Science magazine, reduced noise levels during “the COVID-19 shutdown created a proverbial silent spring” that caused some animals to change their "acoustic signals.”

The auditory exchanges between some species, including the white-crowned sparrow, are necessary for survival and reproduction.

With less noise in the city, “auditory pressures” that the songbirds experience each day dramatically decreased. They were able to produce songs that were lower in amplitude but reached further distances.

“Despite a reduction in song amplitude, communication distance more than doubled during the shutdown, further indicating the impact of noise pollution on communication during normal conditions. This doubling in communication distance could elevate fitness by reducing territorial conflicts and increasing mating potential,” the study says.

Researchers noted that reduced noise and traffic levels in the Bay Area were similar to that of the mid-1950s.

People have also said that they’ve noticed birdsongs in areas where they had never previously heard them, or “newly emptied soundscapes.” The study notes that in addition to real changes in animal communication behavior, “people staying home may simply be paying closer attention to the animals around them.” Plus, the newly increased distance at which the songs are traveling “would allow people to hear ... effectively four times more birds than usual.”

“These findings illustrate that behavioral traits can change rapidly in response to newly favorable conditions, indicating an inherent resilience to long-standing ... pressures like noise pollution,” the study states.