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Birds expanded into quieter cities during Covid lockdowns

Early days of the COVID-19 pandemic were a stressful time marked by fear, isolation, and uncertainty. But for birds, the reduction in noise and commotion created a wider range of habitat in cities.

A new study from the University of Washington reports that many birds were just as likely to be found in highly developed urban areas as they were in less-developed green spaces during COVID-19 lockdowns in the Pacific Northwest.

“Our findings suggest that some birds may have been able to use more spaces in cities because our human footprint was a little lighter,” said Olivia Sanderfoot, who completed the study as a doctoral researcher and is now a postdoctoral scholar 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 an effect on their site use. That’s very interesting, because we would expect that whether a habitat was mostly covered in concrete or vegetation would tell you something about what birds would be there,” said Sanderfoot.

In the spring of 2020, more than 900 community scientists were recruited to participate in the study. The volunteers chose their own monitoring sites such as backyards and parks, and recorded the birds they observed at least once a week. This allowed researchers to gather data despite the lockdowns and gave many volunteers a welcomed distraction from the stresses of the pandemic.

Among the 35 species that showed the strongest changes in behavior were some of the Pacific Northwest’s most iconic, including chickadees, great blue herons, downy woodpeckers and Wilson’s warblers. The researchers focused on 46 bird species overall and completed more than 6,000 individual surveys.

To compare bird observations to human activity, the team used data from Google’s Community Mobility Reports, which track the relative amount that people moved around at various points during the pandemic.

As people returned to public spaces and human activity increased, volunteers recorded an increase in sightings of several bird species in green spaces. While the birds may have been elsewhere during lockdowns enjoying the absence of human disturbance, they returned to green spaces when activity picked up again.  

“This could tell us how important it is to build green spaces into our cities. That’s the biggest takeaway for me.” said Sanderfoot.

The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Image Credit: Holly Hauser

By Katherine Bucko, Staff Writer

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