Songbirds struggle to raise families amid urban noise

February 26, 2016, 8 a.m.
A songbird sings while perched on a branch.
Photo: Bachkova Natalia/Shutterstock

There are some bird species that thrive amid the chaos of cities, such as starlings and sparrows. But other songbird species would prefer us humans to keep it down. Psychology professor Scott MacDougall-Shackleton and postdoctoral scholar Dominique Potvin are studying how noise levels affect reproduction of songbirds.

They used two groups of zebra finches, letting one group live in a nice quiet setting and playing the sounds of an urban park to the other. According to PhysOrg, "Just as wild birds demonstrated in previous studies, the tame finches living with the noise had a harder time reproducing. Fewer eggs hatched; the chicks that did emerge did not grow as well."

"The two groups laid eggs at the same time, but the ones living with the noise weren't hatching. Males and females both incubate. We suspect they weren't incubating as much. Or the noise was disrupting that communication when they switched. Or the noise of car horn could have caused one to jump off (the nest). When the babies did hatched, they were lighter. It suggests it was an effect. Some people don't do well in high-stress situations, while others thrive in them. The same thing happens in other species, too," said MacDougall-Shackleton.

The bird species that tend to do best in urban environments have a higher tolerance for stress, but how might we be able to encourage the presence — and nesting success — of birds that don't have such a high threshold for noise? The researchers hope to help uncover ways to improve life for animal species living in urban areas, including bird species that need a little more quiet.

"One way to be smart about it is understanding that when you put in a road, it's not just that you paved over some land, there are other effects – lots of unintentional consequences," said MacDougall-Shackleton.

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Jaymi Heimbuch is a writer and photographer at Mother Nature Network. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.