How urban soundscapes affect humans and wildlife — and what may have changed in the hush of lockdown


Kurt Iveson, University of Sydney and Dieter Hochuli, University of SydneyThe dull roar of traffic, the barking of dogs in backyards and the screeching of cockatoos at dusk. The shattering of early morning quiet by the first plane overhead or the garbage truck on its rounds. The squealed delights and occasional fights of a children’s playground.

These sounds and many more create what Canadian composer R Murray Schafer famously called a “soundscape”. Schafer, who passed away last month, helped us realise we experience cities with our ears as well as our eyes.

In recent years, studies have confirmed these soundscapes affect the well-being of urban inhabitants — both human and non-human. But with much of the country back under lockdown, urban soundscapes have changed, sometimes bringing delight, but sometimes causing new distress.

So let’s take a moment to consider how soundscapes influence our lives, and the lives of urban wildlife.

When sounds become ‘noise’

Whether it’s housemates, traffic, or construction, we tend to respond to many urban sounds by defining them as “noise”, and try to shut them out. We do this using a range of techniques and technologies: building regulations on soundproofing, controls on the times for certain activities like construction, and planning measures.

But noise mapping efforts show such regulations tend to produce uneven urban soundscapes — some people are more exposed to loud or annoying sounds than others.

Housing quality is a major factor here, and noise problems are likely exacerbated under lockdown. A recent study of pandemic housing inequality in Sydney found increased exposure to noise during lockdown is significantly contributing to poor well-being.

For example, sounds travelling across internal and external walls of apartments were frequently a source of tension in pre-pandemic times. Now, with so many more people spending more time at home, these domestic sounds inevitably increase.




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It’s not just humans whose lives are disrupted by city noise, as many animals use sound to communicate.

The ever-vigilant New Holland honeyeaters of Australian cities use their alarm calls to warn their friends and neighbours of danger, while the iconic chorus of banjo frogs in wetlands are the hopeful calls of males seeking mates.

This is the sound a banjo frog makes.

Noisy environments can dramatically change how these animals behave. In some cases, animals adapt to their noisy environment. Some frogs, for example, overcome traffic noise disrupting their sex lives by calling at a higher pitch. Likewise, populations of bow-winged grasshoppers in Germany exposed to road noise sing at higher frequencies than those living in quieter areas.

For other animals, such as microbats in England, disruptive noise changes how they forage and move around their environments.




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In extreme cases, these human-associated noises can drive animals away from their homes, as the disruptions to their lives becomes untenable.

Urban black-tufted marmosets in Brazil have been shown to avoid areas with abundant food where noise may interfere with their vocal communication. And research shows intruding noise in stopovers for migratory birds in the United States reduces their diversity by 25%, with some species avoiding the stopovers altogether.

Black-tufted marmosets in Brazil avoid noisy habitats even when there’s plenty of food.
Shutterstock

A new quiet?

The soundscape of cities in lockdown can be dramatically different from what we have come to accept as normal.

First, there are new noises. For example, in Sydney’s areas of concern subject to tighter lockdown restrictions, people are living with the frequent intrusive noise of police helicopters patrolling their neighbourhoods, making announcements over loudspeakers about compliance.

But in other cases, as our movements and activities are restricted, some city sounds associated with a negative impact on well-being are significantly reduced. People who live near major roads, aircraft flight paths, or construction sites will certainly be noticing the quiet as road traffic is greatly reduced and non-essential construction is paused.

But of course, while this silence might be golden for some, for others the sound of silence is the sound of lost work and income. This quietude may even be considered as unwelcome or even eerie — the sonic signature of isolation, confinement and loss.

The bow-winged grasshopper adapts to noisy soundscapes by singing at higher frequencies.
Quartl/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Just as many animals adapt to or avoid noisy urban environments, there is a chance many will respond to this natural experiment playing out. Quieter urban environments may see the return of some of our more noise sensitive species, but this depends on the species.

The Brazilian marmosets mentioned earlier didn’t return to those locations even during quieter times, suggesting the noise left a disruptive legacy on their habitat choice, well after it was experienced. On the other hand, other experiments show some species of birds rapidly returned to sites after noise was removed from the landscape.




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While it’s too early to confirm any early speculation about nature returning to quieter urban environments during lockdown, there is compelling evidence many people will benefit from engaging with local nature more actively than they did before.

Birdwatching increased tenfold in lockdown last year.
Matthew Willimott/Unsplash

Many more Australians are acting as urban field naturalists. Birdwatching, for example, increased tenfold in lockdown last year.

It’s clear people are seeing novelty and wonder in animals and plants that have survived and even thrived in our cities right beneath our noses the whole time. Our increased use of local greenspace during the pandemic has created new opportunities to find the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Rethinking post-pandemic soundscapes

What might we learn from this natural experiment about the soundscapes we take for granted and the soundscapes we actually want?

This is an invitation to think about whether we ought to do more to control sounds we consider “noise”. Yes, decibel levels of activities like car and air traffic matter. But it’s also an opportunity to think beyond controlling sounds, and consider how we might create soundscapes to enhance human and non-human well-being. This is easier said than done, given there’s no universal measure of what sounds give pleasure and what sounds are perceived as noise.

This aligns with the growing body of evidence on the need to reduce noise pollution and protect biodiversity when planning and managing our cities.

Like just about every other dimension of urban life, envisioning and creating an improved urban soundscape requires careful attention to spatial inequality and diversity – including of species – and a capacity to work through our differences in a fair and just way.




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The Conversation


Kurt Iveson, Associate Professor of Urban Geography and Research Lead, Sydney Policy Lab, University of Sydney and Dieter Hochuli, Professor, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

With no work in lockdown, tour operators helped find coral bleaching on Western Australia’s remote reefs



Jeremy Tucker, Author provided

James Paton Gilmour, Australian Institute of Marine Science

Significant coral bleaching at one of Western Australia’s healthiest coral reefs was found during a survey carried out in April and May.

The survey took a combined effort of several organisations, together with tour operators more used to taking tourists, but with time spare during the coronavirus lockdown.

WA’s arid and remote setting means many reefs there have escaped some of the pressures affecting parts of the east coast’s Great Barrier Reef), such as degraded water quality and outbreaks of crown of thorns starfish.

The lack of these local pressures reflects, in part, a sound investment by governments and communities into reef management. But climate change is now overwhelming these efforts on even our most remote coral reefs.

Significant coral bleaching has been identified at WA reefs.
Nick Thake, Author provided

When the oceans warmed

This year, we’ve seen reefs impacted by the relentless spread of heat stress across the world’s oceans.

As the 2020 mass bleaching unfolded across the Great Barrier Reef, a vast area of the WA coastline was bathed in hot water through summer and autumn. Heat stress at many WA reefs hovered around bleaching thresholds for weeks, but those in the far northwest were worst affected.

The remoteness of the region and shutdowns due to COVID-19 made it difficult to confirm which reefs had bleached, and how badly. But through these extraordinary times, a regional network of collaborators managed to access even our most remote coral reefs to provide some answers.




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Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology provided regional estimates of heat stress, from which coral bleaching was predicted and surveys targeted.

At reefs along the Kimberley coastline, bleaching was confirmed by WA’s Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA), Bardi Jawi Indigenous rangers, the Kimberley Marine Research Centre and tourist operators.

At remote oceanic reefs hundreds of kilometres from the coastline, bleaching was confirmed in aerial footage provided by Australian Border Force.

Subsequent surveys were conducted by local tourist operators, with no tourists through COVID-19 shutdown and eager to check the condition of reefs they’ve been visiting for many years.

The first confirmation of bleaching on remote coral atolls at Ashmore Reef and the Rowley Shoals was provided in aerial images captured by Australian Border Force.
Australian Border Force, Author provided

The Rowley Shoals

Within just a few days, a tourist vessel chartered by the North West Shoals to Shore Research Program, with local operators and a DBCA officer, departed from Broome for the Rowley Shoals. These three reef atolls span 100km near the edge of the continental shelf, about 260km west-north-west offshore.

One of only two reef systems in WA with high and stable coral cover in the last decade, the Rowley Shoals is a reminder of beauty and value of healthy, well managed coral reefs.

But the in-water surveys and resulting footage confirmed the Rowley Shoals has experienced its worst bleaching event on record.

The most recent heatwave has caused widespread bleaching at the Rowley Shoals, which had previously escaped the worst of the regional heat stress.
Jeremy Tucker, Author provided

All parts of the reef and groups of corals were affected; most sites had between 10% and 30% of their corals bleached. Some sites had more than 60% bleaching and others less than 10%.

The heat stress also caused bleaching at Ashmore Reef, Scott Reef and some parts of the inshore Kimberley and Pilbara regions, all of which were badly affected during the 2016/17 global bleaching event.

This most recent event (2019/20) is significant because of the extent and duration of heat stress. It’s also notable because it occurred outside the extreme El Niño–Southern Oscillation phases – warming or cooling of the ocean’s surface that has damaged the northern and southern reefs in the past.

A reef crisis

The impacts from climate change are not restricted to WA or the Great Barrier Reef – a similar scenario is playing out on reefs around the world, including those already degraded by local pressures.

By global standards, WA still has healthy coral reefs. They provide a critical reminder of what reefs offer in terms of natural beauty, jobs and income from fisheries and tourism.

Despite the most recent bleaching, the Rowley Shoals remains a relatively healthy reef system by global standards. But like all reefs, its future is uncertain under climate change.
James Gilmour, Author provided

But we’ve spent two decades following the trajectories of some of WA’s most remote coral reefs. We’ve seen how climate change and coral bleaching can devastate entire reef systems, killing most corals and dramatically altering associated communities of plants and animals.

And we’ve seen the same reefs recover over just one or two decades, only to again be devastated by mass bleaching – this time with little chance of a full recovery in the future climate.

Ongoing climate change will bring more severe cyclones and mass bleaching, the two most significant disturbances to our coral reefs, plus additional pressures such as ocean acidification.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is the only way to alleviate these pressures. In the meantime, scientists will work to slow the rate of coral reef degradation though new collaborations, and innovative, rigorous approaches to reef management.The Conversation

James Paton Gilmour, Research Scientist: Coral Ecology, Australian Institute of Marine Science

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Birdwatching increased tenfold last lockdown. Don’t stop, it’s a huge help for bushfire recovery



Shutterstock

Ayesha Tulloch, University of Sydney; April Reside, The University of Queensland; Georgia Garrard, RMIT University; Michelle Ward, The University of Queensland, and Monica Awasthy, Griffith University

Many Victorians returning to stage three lockdown will be looking for ways to pass the hours at home. And some will be turning to birdwatching.

When Australians first went into lockdown in March, the combination of border closures, lockdowns and the closure of burnt areas from last summer’s bushfires meant those who would have travelled far and wide to watch their favourite birds, instead stayed home.

Yet, Australians are reporting bird sightings at record rates – they’ve just changed where and how they do it.

In fact, Australian citizen scientists submitted ten times the number of backyard bird surveys to BirdLife Australia’s Birdata app in April compared with the same time last year, according to BirdLife Australia’s Dr Holly Parsons.

But it’s not just a joyful hobby. Australia’s growing fascination with birds is vital for conservation after last summer’s devastating bushfires reduced many habitats to ash.

Birds threatened with extinction

Australia’s native plants and animals are on the slow path to recovery after the devastating fires last summer. In our research that’s soon to be published, we found the fires razed forests, grasslands and woodlands considered habitat for 832 species of native vertebrate fauna. Of these, 45% are birds.

Some birds with the largest areas of burnt habitat are threatened with extinction, such as the southern rufous scrub-bird and the Kangaroo Island glossy black-cockatoo.

Government agencies and conservation NGOs are rolling out critical recovery actions.

But citizen scientists play an important role in recovery too, in the form of monitoring. This provides important data to inform biodiversity disaster research and management.

Record rates of birdwatching

Birdwatchers have recorded numerous iconic birds affected by the fires while observing COVID-19 restrictions. They’ve been recorded in urban parks and city edges, as well as in gardens and on farms.

In April 2020, survey numbers in BirdLife Australia’s Birds in Backyards program jumped to 2,242 – a tenfold increase from 241 in April 2019.

Change in the number of area-based surveys by Australian citizen scientists over the first six months of 2019 compared with 2020. Data sourced from BirdLife Australia’s Birdata database.

Similarly, reporting of iconic birds impacted by the recent bushfires has increased.

Between January and June, photos and records of gang-gang cockatoos in the global amateur citizen science app iNaturalist increased by 60% from 2019 to 2020. And the number of different people submitting these records doubled from 26 in 2019 to 53 in 2020.




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What’s more, reporting of gang-gangs almost doubled in birding-focused apps, such as Birdlife Australia’s Birdata, which recently added a bushfire assessment tool .

The huge rise in birdwatching at home has even given rise to new hashtags you can follow, such as #BirdingatHome on Twitter, and #CuppaWithTheBirds on Instagram.

A gang-gang effort: why we’re desperate for citizen scientists

The increased reporting rates of fire-affected birds is good news, as it means many birds are surviving despite losing their home. But they’re not out of the woods yet.

Their presence in marginal habitats within and at the edge of urban and severely burnt areas puts them more at risk. This includes threats from domestic cat and dog predation, starvation due to inadequate food supply, and stress-induced nest failure.

That’s why consolidating positive behaviour change, such as the rise in public engagement with birdwatching and reporting, is so important.

A female superb lyrebird calling to her reflection in a parked car in suburbia. Her nest was later discovered 100 meters from the carpark.

Citizen science programs help increase environmental awareness and concern. They also improve the data used to inform conservation management decisions, and inform biodiversity disaster management.

For example, improved knowledge about where birds go after fire destroys their preferred habitat will help conservation groups and state governments prioritise locations for recovery efforts. Such efforts include control of invasive predators, supplementary feeding and installation of nest boxes.

Gang gang Cockatoo hanging out on a street sign in Canberra.
Athena Georgiou/Birdlife Photography

Better understanding of how bushfire-affected birds use urban and peri-urban habitats will help governments with long-term planning that identifies and protects critical refuges from being cleared or degraded.

And new data on where birds retreat to after fires is invaluable for helping us understand and plan for future bushfire emergencies.

So what can you do to help?

If you have submitted a bird sighting or survey during lockdown, keep at it! If you have never done a bird survey before, but you see one of the priority birds earmarked for special recovery efforts, please report them.




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There are several tools available to the public for reporting and learning about birds.

iNaturalist asks you to share a photo or video or sound recording, and a community of experts identifies it for you.

BirdLife’s Birds in Backyards program includes a “Bird Finder” tool to help novice birders identify that bird sitting on the back verandah. Once you’ve figured out what you’re seeing, you can log your bird sightings to help out research and management.

The majority of habitat for Kangaroo Island glossy black cockatoos burnt last summer.
Bowerbirdaus/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

For more advanced birders who can identify birds without guidance, options include eBird and BirdLife’s Birdata app. This will help direct conservation groups to places where help is most needed.

Finally, if there are fire-affected birds, such as lyrebirds and gang-gang cockatoos, in your area, it’s especially important to keep domestic dogs and cats indoors, and encourage neighbours to do the same. Report fox sightings to your local council.




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If you come across a bird that’s injured or in distress, it’s best to contact a wildlife rescue organisation, such as Wildcare Australia (south-east Queensland), WIRES (NSW) or Wildlife Victoria.

By ensuring their homes are safe and by building a better bank of knowledge about where they seek refuge in times of need, we can all help Australia’s unique wildlife.The Conversation

Ayesha Tulloch, DECRA Research Fellow, University of Sydney; April Reside, Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Georgia Garrard, Senior Research Fellow, Interdisciplinary Conservation Science Research Group, RMIT University; Michelle Ward, PhD Candidate, The University of Queensland, and Monica Awasthy, Visiting Research Scientist, Environmental Futures Research Institute, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Coronavirus: what the lockdown could mean for urban wildlife



‘Today, the pond. Tomorrow, the world!’
Patrick Robert Doyle/Unsplash, CC BY-SA

Becky Thomas, Royal Holloway

As quarantine measures take hold across the world, our towns and cities are falling silent. With most people indoors, the usual din of human voices and traffic is being replaced by an eerie, empty calm. The wildlife we share our concrete jungles with are noticing, and responding.

You’ve probably seen posts on social media about animals being more visible in urban centres. Animals that live in cities or on their outskirts are exploring the empty streets, like the Kashmiri goats in Llandudno, Wales. Others that would normally only venture out at night are becoming bolder and exploring during the daytime, like the wild boar in Barcelona, Spain.

Our new habits are altering the urban environment in ways that are likely to be both positive and negative for nature. So which species are likely to prosper and which are likely to struggle?

Hooray for hedgehogs

It’s important to note some species may be unaffected by the lockdown. As it coincides with spring in the northern hemisphere, trees will still bud and flower and frogs will continue to fill garden ponds with frog spawn. But other species will be noticing our absence.

The way we affect wildlife is complex, and some of the changes that we’ll see are hard to predict, but we can make some assumptions. In the UK, hedgehogs are our most popular mammal, but their numbers are in rapid decline. There are many reasons for this, but many die on roads after being hit by cars. With people being asked to only make essential journeys, we are already seeing reduced road traffic. Our spiny friends will have just emerged from hibernation and will no doubt be grateful for the change.

The lockdown could be well timed for hedgehogs emerging from hibernation.
Besarab Serhii/Shutterstock

Cities are also noisy places, and the noise affects how different species communicate with each other. Birds have to sing louder and at a higher pitch than their rural counterparts, which affects the perceived quality of their songs. With reduced traffic noise, we could see differences in how bats, birds and other animals communicate, perhaps offering better mating opportunities.

School closures may not be ideal for working parents, but many will use their time to connect with nature in their own backyard. More time spent in gardens (for those lucky enough to have one), perhaps doing activities like making bird feeders, could help encourage nature close to home. There’s been a surge in people taking part in citizen science projects like the Big Butterfly Count too. These help scientists to predict the population trends of different species. The British Trust for Ornithology has just made participation in their Garden BirdWatch Project free during the lockdown, so you can connect with wildlife and contribute to important scientific research.




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Desolation for ducks

All is not rosy for wildlife. Many species currently rely on food provided by humans. From primates fed by tourists in Thailand, to the ducks and geese at local parks which have been closed to the public, many animals may be seeking new sources of food.

In the UK, the bird breeding season has already begun for earlier breeders like robins. Depending on how long restrictions last, many birds could ultimately make bad decisions about where to breed, assuming their carefully chosen spot is always rarely disturbed. This could threaten rarer birds which breed in the UK, such as little terns, as dog walkers and other people flock to beaches once restrictions are lifted, potentially trampling and disturbing breeding pairs and their young.

A little tern sheltering eggs on an open beach.
BOONCHUAY PROMJIAM/Shutterstock

Dog walkers also enjoy lowland heathlands, especially those near urban areas such as Chobham Common in Surrey. These rare heaths are home to many rare bird species, like Dartford warblers, which could also see their nests disturbed once humans begin to emerge again in larger numbers. People who are enthralled by wildlife venturing into new areas during lockdown will need to carefully manage their return to the outdoors once restrictions are lifted.

Though some species may face challenges in now silent towns and cities, those species that live alongside us do so because they are so adaptable. They will find new sources of food, and will exploit new opportunities created in our absence. Hopefully this time will allow people to appreciate their local environments more, and find new ways to nurture them once all this is over.The Conversation

Becky Thomas, Senior Teaching Fellow in Ecology, Royal Holloway

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.