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Au Sable Joins Calvin College in Continuing Research on Effects of Noise Pollution

Dec 15, 2014

For the second consecutive year, the Au Sable Institute will join Calvin College Associate Professor of Biology Darren Proppe in an ongoing investigation of the response of forest bird species to noise pollution associated with oil and natural gas drilling in northern Michigan. Returning for his second summer to teach Au Sable’s course in Animal Ecology (Summer Session I, Great Lakes), Proppe will also continue this investigation (the second of three years of planned research) that, at heart, explores the best way to expand quality habitat use for songbirds and perhaps other animals as well.

Noise pollution has been a noted deterrent to wildlife occupancy of otherwise quality habitats, particularly for animals that communicate vocally. In northern Lower Michigan, an examination of noise created in the process of oil and natural gas extraction is particularly relevant because, since the 1970s, such effort has proliferated in the area and become one of the most important drivers of local economy. The deterioration of habitat not only comes from the physical removal of trees, but the imposition of noise levels that impede the ability of vocal animals, such as songbirds to establish breeding territories and communicate with one another.

This project builds off Proppe's extensive past work on other forms of noise pollution and their effects on songbirds, research that had been featured in major scientific publications as well as on BBC News. This study's outcome -- determining whether songbirds could successfully habituate and establish themselves in noisy areas -- has important implications for conservation. According to Proppe, this research will help guide the conservation community to either "kick-start research into new methodologies for songbird conservation in noisy areas, or lend further support for more traditional methods of noise mitigation." 

Research Aims and Conservation Impact

Using ten control and treatment sites, Proppe and his student research assistants will examine activity patterns of six species of songbirds, all known to be less common in areas with high levels of human-produced noise. Species include ovenbird, hermit thrush, black-throated green warbler, great-crested flycatcher, eastern wood-pewee, and rose breasted grosbeak. Proppe and team will determine whether songbirds can be attracted by songs of their own species, as they usually are, if they hear these songs in conjunction with playback of anthropogenic noise. They also aim to determine the residence and reproductive success of birds living in noisy areas, learn if adverse behaviors due to noise subside over time, and examine whether noise-averse species can be attracted to high-quality natural areas adjacent to environments with high noise levels.

The findings of Dr. Proppe and his students will contribute to our understanding of bird behavior, especially whether anthropogenic noise is merely perceived as an indicator of danger by songbirds which only temporarily lessens bird occupancy, or represents a real danger to fitness and reproductive success. The research also has important implications for conservation in determining if songbirds can establish and successfully breed in noisy areas. Dr. Fred Van Dyke, Au Sable’s Executive Director, notes “We’re delighted to be able to continue to be a part of Darren’s effort. This research meets all the key criteria of scientific importance, relevance to conservation, and opportunity for undergraduate experience that we strive for in all the studies that are part of our expanding research program at Au Sable. It will be great to have Darren and his students back.”