It’s hard to be a parent. I’m not one myself, but I’ve seen my friends struggle to hold a conversation, open a car door or navigate the grocery store with kids in tow. There are always shoes to be tied, arguments to break up and fingers to be plucked away from the million dangerous objects within reach when you’re two feet tall and curious. Distractions, like talking on the phone or trying to watch a movie, only up the ante for disaster.
Turns out, the same thing is true in nature. A recent study from the University of Sheffield found that noise from traffic, construction and power generators has a significant negative impact on the level of attention urban birds pay to their chicks. Experts say the noise drowns out the chirping of hungry chicks, leaving parents oblivious to the needs of their young.
“It can have implications for all bird species that experience urban noise. Our study shows the first evidence for noise affecting breeding success in birds by interrupting communication between parents and offspring in a wild population,” says Julia Schroeder, of Sheffield’s department of animal and plant sciences.
The researchers were inspired to conduct this study after learning that numbers of breeding sparrows in the UK have declined by 60 to 99 percent in some areas. To help them determine the cause for this decline, scientists studied long-term data from a population of house sparrows living on Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel. They found that sparrow nests in areas affected by noise from large power generators produced fewer baby birds, of lower body mass, than those raised in quiet barns or a small wooded area on the island. When the generator noise was switched off, broods in the nosier areas were fed more often.
“Also, individual females provided their young with food less often when they bred in the noisy area compared to breeding attempts by the same females elsewhere,” write the researchers. “Furthermore, we show that females reacted flexibly to increased noise levels by adjusting their provisioning rate in the short term, which suggests that noise may be a causal factor that reduces reproductive output.”
These findings are particularly useful to those working to replenish wild bird populations, particularly in and around urban areas. The scientists say that to ensure successful breeding seasons, nest boxes should be put up as far away from noise as possible but suspect that only an overall reduction of urban noise will have a quantifiable impact.
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