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Singing in a silent spring: Birds respond to a half-century soundscape reversion during the COVID-19 shutdown

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Science  30 Oct 2020:
Vol. 370, Issue 6516, pp. 575-579
DOI: 10.1126/science.abd5777

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Songbirds reclaim favored frequencies

When severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) pandemic lockdowns were instituted across entire countries, human activities ceased in an unprecedented way. Derryberry et al. found that the reduction in traffic sound in the San Francisco Bay Area of California to levels not seen for half a century led to a shift in song frequency in white-crowned sparrows (see the Perspective by Halfwerk). This shift was especially notable because the frequency of human-produced traffic noise occurs within a range that interferes with the highest performance and most effective song. Thus, our “quiet” allowed the birds to quickly fill the most effective song space.

Science, this issue p. 575; see also p. 523

Abstract

Actions taken to control the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic have conspicuously reduced motor vehicle traffic, potentially alleviating auditory pressures on animals that rely on sound for survival and reproduction. Here, by comparing soundscapes and songs across the San Francisco Bay Area before and during the recent statewide shutdown, we evaluated whether a common songbird responsively exploited newly emptied acoustic space. We show that noise levels in urban areas were substantially lower during the shutdown, characteristic of traffic in the mid-1950s. We also show that birds responded by producing higher performance songs at lower amplitudes, effectively maximizing communication distance and salience. These findings illustrate that behavioral traits can change rapidly in response to newly favorable conditions, indicating an inherent resilience to long-standing anthropogenic pressures such as noise pollution.

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