Was reduced human activity good for birds?

The unprecedented times of the COVID-19 pandemic saw a decline in human activity during various provincial restrictions. Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) researcher, Nancy Mahony collaborated with many partners on a comprehensive study led by the University of Manitoba to ask the question whether or not reduced human activity impacted birds. She talks to us about this collaboration.

The pandemic is a global health issue that continues to impact the daily lives of Canadians and other people around the world. During a period of provincial COVID-19 restrictions, when travel and transit occurred less frequently, ECCC researcher Nancy Mahony and her colleagues began to wonder how reduced human activity impacted wildlife, such as birds. What impact might this have on birds? Where were these impacts observed across Canada? And what particular types of human activity influence the distribution of birds?

Nancy worked with colleagues from the University of Manitoba, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Dalhousie and Carleton Universities, and other ECCC staff on a large-scale study that was published in the Science Advances Journal. According to their research, 80% of (66 of 82) bird species studied showed changes in abundance, mostly increases, in areas with reduced human activity due to COVID-19 restrictions, such as near roads and airports. In these human-dominated landscapes, it appears that factors associated with traffic intensity determine the quality of these habitats for birds.

Nancy and the team were able to use e-Bird, an invaluable electronic database of community-science bird observations maintained by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Using eBird, the team was able to gather more than 4 million observations of 82 bird species collected across North America. By examining records collected between the months of March and May from 2017 to 2020, the research team was able to compare bird observations in the pandemic year (2020) with those from the pre-pandemic periods (2017-2019). The team focused on areas of high human activity, such as airports, major roadsides, and urban areas where human activity is more intense, and compared these to rural areas.

Birds avoid high traffic areas

The study’s results were striking. A total of 80% of birds showed changes in abundance in areas where human activity has declined and traffic has been reduced. This reveals the depth and the scale of human impact on birds. What was interesting, according to Nancy, was that two of the bird groups that showed a strong response were warblers and sparrows. “The fact that these species groups, which have declined steeply over the past decade, showed these increases suggests that they are particularly sensitive to factors associated with human mobility, which might have long-term effects on bird populations,” Nancy explains.

This work has emphasized to Nancy that our behaviours and way of life have an impact on wildlife. “The decisions we make as individuals to reduce our carbon footprint, including how we work, where we work, how we commute, and how often we fly, could be good as well for birds. Especially those that have shown declines in the last few decades.” These results can be used to inform how our roadways, our transportation systems, and our cities are designed - with the opportunity to design win-win plans for carbon reductions and wildlife conservation.

What’s next?

Nancy and the University of Manitoba research team are planning to build on this study. Further study is needed to better understand the mechanisms that are driving the large-scale patterns observed, for example, are bird distributions influenced by traffic noise or other visual distractions. For Nancy, collaboration with universities and other partners will allow ECCC scientists to build on internal expertise, engage the wider scientific community, and provide scientific advice to support the conservation of migratory birds and biodiversity across Canada.