Bird behavior influenced by human activity during COVID-19 closures

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August 11, 2022

A young black-capped chickadee.Holly Hauser

For humans, the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic were a stressful time, marked by fear, isolation, canceled plans and uncertainty. But for birds that inhabit developed areas of the Pacific Northwest, the reduction in noise and commotion from pandemic shutdowns may have allowed them to use a wider range of habitats in cities.

A new study from the University of Washington led by Olivia Sanderfoot reports that many birds were just as likely to be found in highly developed urban areas as in less developed green spaces during the height of the COVID-19 shutdowns. The article was published August 11 in the journal Scientific Reports.

“Our results suggest that some birds could have used more space in cities because our human footprint was a bit lighter,” said Sanderfoot, who completed the study as a doctoral student at the UW School of Environmental. and Forest Sciences and is now a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“For about half of the species we observed, neither land use nor canopy cover had any effect on their site use. This is very interesting because we would expect that the fact that a habitat is mostly concrete or vegetation would tell you something about the birds that would be there,” Sanderfoot said.

two birds are sitting next to each other

Two great blue herons stand side by side.Holly Hauser

In the spring of 2020, Sanderfoot and his colleagues recruited more than 900 Pacific Northwest community scientists to participate in the study. The volunteers chose their own monitoring sites – mostly backyards and parks where they could safely comply with public health orders – and recorded the birds they observed over a period of at least 10 minutes. once a week. This community-based science approach allowed researchers to gather data despite the closures and gave many volunteers a welcome distraction from the stresses of the pandemic.

“I love being a part of this!” said study volunteer Nadine Santo Pietro in a comment written as part of the project. “I signed up to observe once a week for 10 minutes, but it became so much more than that. … I’m learning so much! And it gave me something positive to focus on during this weird time that we find ourselves in right now.

Volunteer Elaine Chuang wrote: “Being involved not only as a survey participant but also as a mentor gives me a role in bringing a greater appreciation for birds and nature in general to the community in its together.”

a woodpecker feeds her baby in a tree nest

A downy woodpecker feeds its chick.Holly Hauser

Among the 35 species that showed the greatest behavioral changes were some of the most iconic of the Pacific Northwest, including black-capped chickadees, great blue herons, downy woodpeckers and Wilson’s warblers. The researchers focused on a total of 46 bird species, which were observed by the study volunteers during more than 6,000 individual surveys.

To compare the volunteers’ bird sightings to human activity, Sanderfoot and his colleagues used data from Google’s Community Mobility Reports, which tracks the relative amount of people’s movements at different times during the pandemic. While most people spent the spring of 2020 isolated at home, many have started to venture out again during the study period.

As people returned to public spaces and human activity increased, study volunteers recorded an increase in sightings of several bird species. Because they were primarily monitoring parks and backyards, which tend to be more vegetated, provide more canopy, and offer more resources for birds than other areas of cities, this could indicate that these spaces greens are an important refuge for urban birds.

a bird sits on a fence post

Stellar Jay.Holly Hauser

“Birds may have been elsewhere during the height of the closures because human activity wasn’t as much of a disturbance, but then returned to those vegetated areas as activity increased again,” Sanderfoot said. . “It could tell us how important it is to build green spaces in our cities. This is the biggest takeaway for me.

Other co-authors are Joel Kaufman, professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Occupational Health at UW, and Beth Gardner, associate professor in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences at UW.

This research was funded by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program and the McIntire-Stennis Cooperative Forestry Research Program of the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

For more information, contact Sanderfoot at [email protected], Kaufman at [email protected], and Gardner at [email protected]

Press release written by Will Shenton, UW College of the Environment.

Tag(s): Beth Gardner • College of the Environment • Department of Environmental Sciences and Occupational Health • Joel Kaufman • Olivia Sanderfoot • School of Environmental and Forest Sciences • School of Public Health


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