Is light and noise pollution harming our birds - and what can be done?

Is light and noise pollution harming our birds - and what can be done?

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We're used to electric and other artificial lighting guiding us through the darkness these days, and we're also largely immune to the white noise that makes up the background of our daily lives, particularly in cities.

However, research is increasingly suggesting that both excessive light and noise could be having a detrimental effect on our wild birds and other creatures.

Knock-on effects for our birds

A new project at Glasgow University has been looking at why Robins appear to be singing at night in built-up areas, since these birds appear to be particularly sensitive to artificial lighting.

Speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in California, lead researcher Dr Davide Dominoni said he thinks our lights (particularly neon types) are convincing the birds there is no end to the day.

The BBC quoted him as saying that this could have a harmful effect: "Singing is a costly behaviour, it takes energy. So by increasing their song output, there might be some energetic costs," he pointed out.

However, this isn't the first time that the behaviour of Robins has been looked at in relation to city disruptions.

Back in 2007, scientists from the University of Sheffield also looked at this species and found that while light did have a small effect on night-time singing, daytime noise appeared to be having much more of an impact - and this suggested that the birds are actively modifying their behaviour to sing at night because they are being drowned out during the day.

The Glasgow-based study also looked at urban Blackbirds and discovered that the extra light from artificial sources is making them believe days are 49 minutes longer than is actually the case.

Consequently, the birds thought they were living in late March when it was actually only the start of the month - and this results in them reaching sexual maturity 19 days earlier than their rural counterparts.

It might not sound like much, but this could have a knock-on effect if the species starts breeding too early in cities since there might not be enough food to sustain them and temperatures could still be severe.

What can be done?

With regard to light, Dr Dominoni said he thinks we could be making a conscious effort to cut light pollution, commenting: "I think we should reduce the intensity of the light we put out, reduce the amount of light and try to think about the spectrum of the light we are putting out."

He suggested modifying street lamps by shielding them from above and indeed, this is something many UK councils are already doing. Some local authorities have also been switching them off completely at certain times of night - admittedly this was more a cost-saving exercise than a desire to help birds, but it should benefit them either way.

We can also take our own steps to cut light pollution by turning off outdoor porch lighting (or swapping it to be motion-sensitive for security) and replacing bulbs with more efficient LED varieties.

Changing attitudes worldwide could be a long-term goal though, as there is still the propensity to link urban brightness with wealth and power - even though we undoubtedly don't need all the illuminated amenities we see.

With some cities 100 times brighter at night than is natural, the International Dark Sky Association is keen to take this route and get countries around the world taking responsibility for cutting their light output.

Noise may be more difficult to address, but it could once again rest on changing attitudes and making it less acceptable to create excessive noise.

An app called NoiseTube developed by researchers at the Free University of Brussels in Belgium last year allows people to use their smartphones to create collaborative noise maps of their specific locations at particular times, which might help to highlight how much of an issue noise can be.

In turn, this might convince policymakers to put steps in place such as adding noise barriers to roads, utilising traffic controls and making it the law to use quieter equipment for things like construction work.

Again, this may be more for the benefit of people than for wildlife - but if it also helps our birds, it can surely only be a good thing. Who knows; we might sleep a little easier at night too.