The COVID-19-related restrictions on gatherings and movement have been challenging for my family, but they have also had a beneficial effect on our soundscape. With fewer airline flights and vehicles on the road, and most workers conducting business from home, the sounds of industry have made way for the sounds of nature.
I noticed the change in outdoor noise during a pre-dawn, physically distanced jog through my Toronto neighbourhood. Though always quieter at this time than later in the day, my neighbourhood is rarely still, and I can often hear the sounds of daily life while I jog. The subterranean rumble of subway trains gearing up for the morning rush; the drone of drivers embarking on their daily commutes; and the clamour emanating from nearby construction sites.
Much of that commotion has been replaced by the melodic warbling of robins, cardinals and finches. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and my family and I had planned to celebrate by camping at Sandbanks Provincial Park to witness the spring bird migration.
The pandemic and ensuing lockdown have scuttled our camping plans, but thankfully not our birding plans. I recently found the Peterson Field Guides: Birding by Ear CDs I received several birthdays ago, and am looking forward to learning bird songs in the company of my young daughter in the coming weeks. As the spring migration progresses and our identification skills expand, my daughter and I will be able to bird from the safety of our backyard, unimpeded by the usual aural litter of our city environment.
There is increasing evidence that human-made noise harms wildlife. The din created by highway and recreational vehicles disrupts communication between individual animals and can hinder the ability of many species to find prey or establish a territory. The deleterious effects of noise on humans – sleep disturbance, hearing loss, stress, and increased risk of heart attacks and strokes – is well documented. It is reasonable to assume that birds, amphibians, mammals and fish suffer these physiological effects as well.
People across the world have noticed the near-immediate reduction in human noise that the widespread lockdowns have caused and the subsequent increase in the audible prominence of other species. From Boston to Rome to Wuhan, city dwellers are marvelling at the array of songbirds they never knew shared their environment. As an inhabitant of Wuhan wrote on Facebook during that city’s quarantine, “I used to think there weren’t really birds in Wuhan… I now know they were just muted and crowded out by the traffic and people”.
Wildlife is having a well deserved moment right now. My daughter and I invite you to share that moment by joining our birding efforts. Do a backyard big year if you have the outdoor space or simply listen for migratory birds from the open window of your apartment. Even during this difficult time, there is much to celebrate on Earth Day.
Lisa Richardson is Ontario Nature's Nature Network and Communications Coordinator and ON Nature Associate Editor. In her spare time, Lisa enjoys camping and exploring nature with her husband and daughter.