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Earth Note: Birds and Noise

Dave Keelinghttps/

It’s well known that extracting natural gas for fuel contributes to global warming. But animals that live where these resources are mined face another problem: excessive noise.

Fuel producers use air compressors to maintain appropriate pressure at natural gas drill sites. Biologists have found that this intrusion of industrial noise into otherwise quiet environments affects birds nesting nearby.

In a recent study, Nathan Kleist of the University of Colorado tracked three species of insect-eating songbirds nesting in the Rattlesnake Canyon area in northwest New Mexico. It’s a place far from any town, but studded with noisy drill sites.

By mounting nest boxes at precise distances from compressor equipment, Kleist was able to show that bluebirds and flycatchers exposed to higher noise levels experience higher levels of stress. In fact, testing of their blood showed hormone levels akin to those found in people with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Nestling birds at the noisiest sites were also smaller and less healthy than those in quieter places. Why does that happen? Researchers theorize that noise may make it harder for adult birds to forage and communicate normally.

Noise is a strangely challenging pollutant when it continues 24/7. Even when birds are sleeping, they’re still exposed to the noise, and their bodies are still responding to it. That can lead to the sorts of chronic health problems all too familiar to modern humans. It’s a reminder that we’re linked to wild animals in more ways than might be obvious.

Peter Friederici is a writer whose articles, essays, and books focus primarily on connections between humans and their natural surroundings. His most recent book is Beyond Climate Breakdown: Envisioning New Stories of Radical Hope (MIT Press, 2022). He also teaches classes in science communication and sustainable communities at Northern Arizona University.

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