National Geographic

City birds struggle to make themselves heard

My first ever feature article has just been published in this week’s issue of New Scientist. It’s about the ways in which songbirds are coping with the noisy din of cities. Low-frequency urban noises mask the calls that they use to attract mates, defend territories and compete with rivals. The race to adapt to this new soundscape has already seen some losers being forced out and some winners developing some intriguing strategies to cope with the clamour.
Robins have started to sing at night when it’s quieter, while nightingales just belt out their tunes more loudly (breaking noise safety regulations while they’re at it). Several species including great tits and song sparrows have started to sing at higher frequencies that are less likely to be masked. Song is a sexual trait, and over time the different strategies used by urban and country birds could lead to a single species splitting into two.
That’s a little taster of the full article, which I’m not allowed to publish here. You’ll need a subscription to New Scientist to read the whole shebang online. I’m really excited about this – I’ve been trying to pitch a feature for them for about a year now, and I prefer the experience to writing news pieces.

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  1. HP
    March 27, 2008

    Congratulations on the gig! That does sound exciting.
    A couple years ago, I was walking through a relatively quiet part of the city, when I heard the audio “walk” signal for blind pedestrians. Which was odd, because I was nowhere near a designated crosswalk, and far from the city center. I looked around and tried to find the source of the sound, and there was a proud mockingbird two stories up on a building ledge, either competing with an audio crosswalk for mates, or else trying to lure blind people into the street.

  2. Ed Yong
    March 27, 2008

    “or else trying to lure blind people into the street.”
    This made me chuckle. I love the idea of an urban mockingbird that has evolved to prey on commuters by luring them across busy streets. In fact, breeding such an animal would make my journey into work more pleasant :-)

  3. Samantha Vimes
    March 29, 2008

    Ah, yes, once I heard the most amazing, complicated birdsong. Tried looking up calls the next day, nothing like it. Then I heard the car alarm across the street go off… again.
    Car alarms sound a LOT better coming from a mockingbird’s throat!

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