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New Research Aims to Study Impact of Noise Pollution on Songbird Communication and Establishment

May 05, 2014

Throughout April and May, we'll be releasing our 'Summer Spotlight' series featuring the research projects and teams that will be tackling some of the big questions in conservation and restoration in Northern Michigan and around the country. We started with our Boardman River Restoration Project, now in its 7th year, which is attempting to capture the recovery of aquatic wildlife post-dam removal. Today, we profile a new Institute research study, in collaboration with Calvin College, on the effects of anthropogenic noise on songbird establishment and fitness, a fascinating area of research with implications for our undestanding of bird behavior and conservation.

Background

The US highway system alone has four million miles of road. That's four million miles of high speed cars and trucks plunging towards their destination, leaving a wake of sound waves eminating through the roadside natural areas adjacent to them. Au Sable is embarking on a new research study to explore animals' willingness to occupy high quality habitat in places with high noise pollution, particularly alongside heavily used roads and high ways. The project is under the direction of one of the Institute's new faculty members, Dr. Darren Proppe, Assistant Professor of Biology at Calvin College. Proppe will be taking the helm as Animal Ecology professor this year as well as taking the reigns of this three-year study that, at its heart, explores the best way to expand quality habitat use for songbirds and perhaps other animals as well. Noise pollution has been a noted deterant for wildlife, particularly among those animals that communicate vocally. This project will build off of Proppe's past work on noise pollution's relationship with songbirds. The study's outcome -- determining whether songbirds could successfully habituate and establish themselves in noisy areas -- has big conservation implications. 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 for noise mitigation." 

Research Aims and Conservation Impact

Proppe and his student research team have their work cut out for them. Using ten control and treatment sites, the team will hone in on the activity of six known noise-averse songbirds: the ovenbird, hermit thrush, black-throated green warbler, great-crested flycatcher, eastern wood-pewee, and rose breasted grosbeak. Their aims are four-fold: test whether songbirds can be attracted to areas with high anthropogenic noise, explore the fitness of birds living in noisy areas, see whether adverse behaviors due to noise subside over time, and examine whether noise-averse birds can be attracted to high-quality natural areas adjacent to environments heavy with anthropogenic noise.

This research has a number of implications. The group's findings will contribute to our understanding of bird behavior, specifically how anthropogenic noise impacts a bird's ability to decifer whether that noise indicates safety or danger and whether over time they can better decifer those signals. It also has conservation implications by determining if 1) songbirds can establish and successfully breed in noisy areas, 2) they need help from conservation professionals who can help birds know that this is safe, high quality habitat to occupy, and 3) noise is too much for songbirds to overcome and conservation professionals need to find ways to mitigate noise for songbirds to establish in high quality natural areas next to noisy environments.

The four-person research team investigating these questions is led by Proppe with support from an energetic student research team ready to help unravel this ecological puzzle:

Meet the Team

Leanna DeJong is entering her junior year at Calvin College where she is pursuing a Biology and Spanish major with a minor in Environmental Studies. She will be joining the Institute for a new research project with Au Sable Professor Darren Proppe (Calvin College) on bird communication and behavior, specifically whether conspecific song playback increases establishment rates for five species of songbirds in Northern Michigan. This will be Leanna's first summer at Au Sable after she changed her biology focus to areas of environmental studies and ecological restoration. Her deep passion and love for biology and for God’s creation propels her academic interests. She has also worked at SpringHill summer camps and is involved in Younglife and Women’s Chorale throughout my time at Calvin College.

Samuel Cowell is a graduating senior with a major in Biology (Ecology emphasis) from Azusa Pacific University. A student at the Au Sable in the 2012 Field Ecology of Birds course, Sammy will be returning to the Institute as part of the research team studying communication and establishment rates for Northern Michigan songbirds. He has been involved with the International Bird Rescue Center, handling injured birds, performing physical exams, and preparing and feeding seabirds in enclosed aviaries. He is currently doing diabetes research with Dr. Christopher Bassey at Azusa Pacific University. In his free time, Sammy enjoys birdwatching, rock scrambling, tree climbing, and kayaking.

Thuy-Nhi Nguyen is entering her senior year at Calvin College where she is majoring in Biology. This will be her first summer at Au Sable Institute as well as her first research experience. She will be joining the Institute for a new research project with Professor Darren Proppe studying communication and establishment rates for Northern Michigan songbirds. She enjoys traveling the world and has been a number of places including Mexico, France, England, Italy and will be heading to Asia for a month this summer after research.  Her extracurricular work includes being a volunteer at Metro Health and the local animal shelter and being Vice President of the Calvin Culinary Club.  In her free time, she enjoys walking her dog, taking long bike rides, swimming, and tubing down the river.