“This is an acoustic degradation of the environment,” biologist Rob Guralnick said.
The bluebird didn’t realize what she was getting herself into when she chose her new home, about 75 yards from a natural-gas compressor. It was only as the days and weeks wore on that the low whine of machinery started to take a toll. It was harder to hear the sounds of approaching predators, or even the normal noises of the surrounding world, so she had to maintain constant vigilance. Her stress hormone levels became skewed; her health deteriorated. She couldn’t resettle elsewhere, because she had a nest full of hatchlings to tend. Yet her chicks suffered too, growing up small and scantily feathered — if they survived at all.
Scientists couldn’t ask the bluebird what she was feeling. But when they sampled the bird’s blood, as part of a study of 240 nesting sites surrounding natural-gas-treatment facilities in northern New Mexico, they found she showed the same physiological symptoms as a human suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Noise is causing birds to be in a situation where they’re chronically stressed … and that has really huge health consequences for birds and their offspring,” said Rob Guralnick, associate curator of biodiversity informatics at the Florida Museum of Natural History.
It would be a stretch to say noise hurts birds’ mental health — the animals have not been evaluated by an avian psychologist. But in a paper published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Guralnick and his colleagues say there is a clear connection between noise pollution, abnormal levels of stress hormones, and lower survival rates. This is the first time that link has been established in a population of wild animals, they argue, and it should make us all think hard about what our ruckus is doing to the Earth.
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“Habitat degradation is always conceived of as clear cutting, or, you know, changing the environment in a physical way. But this is an acoustic degradation of the environment,” Guralnick said. “We think it is a real conservation concern.”
The research was conducted at the Bureau of Land Management’s Rattlesnake Canyon Habitat Management Area, a sun-drenched expanse of sage-brush-covered mesas and steep canyons forested with juniper and pinyon pine. The site is uninhabited, but it’s dotted with natural-gas…