Noise and Light Pollution Can Limit Which Birds Visit Our Backyards

cedar waxwings
SAN LUIS OBISPO — A new study led by Cal Poly researchers reports that birds across the continental U.S. tend to avoid backyard feeders in louder areas. When light pollution is also present, even more species stayed away.  

The study, published June 10 in Global Change Biology, used data from the community science program Program FeederWatch, which includes thousands of participants reporting bird observations at feeder locations across the nation. The research team analyzed more than 3.4 million observations of 140 different bird species across the continental U.S.  

“Broadly speaking, we are just starting to dive into the consequences of light and noise for  animals,” said Ashley Wilson, a Cal Poly graduate student who led the study. “Most studies focus on a single species’ responses to noise or light pollution. As such, our study involving 140 species provides the most comprehensive assessment of how noise and light influence which birds we see in our backyards and neighborhoods.”  Common bird species such as American goldfinches, cedar waxwings and white-breasted nuthatches all avoided areas with excessive noise. In areas where light and noise pollution both occurred, many additional species avoided backyard feeders. While certain species may be able to cope with one pollutant, the addition of a second might overwhelm their coping abilities.   

“These responses would have been overlooked completely if we only focused on the influence of light or noise individually rather than considering the total exposure to both sensory pollutants,” Wilson said. “Our overall influence on sensitive species could be more widespread than we originally thought.”   

Researchers also found that noise and light pollution affect birds differently across distinct environments. For example, birds that live in forests tend to be more sensitive to noise and light than those that live in grasslands.  

Seasonal patterns and variation in the length of night also influenced how species respond to light pollution. For example, during longer nights nearly 50 species increased in abundance with light pollution.

“That many species are more abundant in lit areas when nights are longer could be because winter nights present challenging conditions, especially farther North where temperatures drop below freezing and birds use a lot of energy to stay warm and survive,” said Clint Francis, a Cal Poly biology professor and senior author of the study. “It is possible that light at night provides the opportunity to stay active and continue eating into the night time hours. Still, exposure to light could create problems that we could not measure in this study, like altered sleep patterns and increased stress.” 

Globally, light and noise are continuing to spread each year. They not only impact urban areas but also are starting to leak into protected natural areas.  

“If birds cannot tolerate the increased intensity and presence of these pollutants, then we may end up seeing fewer species in brightly lit and loud places, even in protected areas,” said Wilson, who earned her master’s degree in biological sciences last December. 

American goldfinchesFurther research is needed to learn how to manage these pollutants, added Wilson. How species respond to noise and light may also be influenced by a species’ innate ability to detect and comprehend sensory cues. Additionally, studying light and noise together may allow scientists to identify sensory danger zones that have the highest risk of impacting vulnerable and rare species. 

The research was funded by NASA and Germany’s Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.  

For more on the study, visit: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/gcb.15663 

Contact: Clinton Francis 
cdfranci@calpoly.edu 

June 14, 2021

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