Light pollution dampens urban robins’ song

European robin (c) Science Photo LibraryImage copyright
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The song and behaviour of the UK’s favourite bird is being affected by light and noise pollution.

That is according to research from Southampton University, which revealed how robins are affected by night-time lighting and road noise in a city park.

They measured how much the quality of robin territory was affected by its proximity to a lit path and a road.

They presented the results at the British Ecological Society meeting in Liverpool.

“Robins are found in almost every city park, so they’re ideal for this type of [urban ecology] study,” lead researcher Frances Mullany told BBC News.

“Male robins also begin their activity relatively early in the day compared to other species, so they are likely to be sensitive to light pollution.”

Because the male birds are aggressive and very vocal in defending good quality territory, and in advertising themselves to potential mates, the researchers were able to construct a bird “dominance hierarchy” to assess how the birds were affected by night-time street lights and road noise.

The scientists used a taxidermy robin and a recording of a robin’s song – setting up their fake bird in different robin territories throughout the park.

They then recorded how aggressively each of the birds in the park that responded sang and displayed in response.

The robins that lived closer to lit paths and noisy roads were much lower down this dominance hierarchy – the birds in these territories displayed less aggressively.

“Artificial night-time lighting and more daytime noise resulted in lower quality robin territory,” said Ms Mullany.

“So these anthropogenic factors can be just as important as environmental factors [for wildlife habitat] in an urban landscape.”

Dr Davide Dominoni, an animal health researcher from the University of Glasgow said the research provided “new insights” into the effect of urban light and noise pollution on birds.

“It would be interesting to figure out whether these results are a consequence of noisy and bright territories being of less quality, or else the birds living there being more stressed and unable to defend their territories with success,” he said.

“Likewise, experiments could be designed to disentangle what factor – light or noise – plays a more important role in this process.”

The researchers plan to go on to work out how exactly night-time light impacts on the birds’ fitness, and hope that these findings can be incorporated into urban planning – so our parks can be created as suitable space for wildlife, as well as for us.

“Perhaps we can take these factors into account when we’re thinking about lighting plans and road traffic,” said Ms Mullany.

Media captionClare Simm from the BTO explains why researchers have focused on light pollution’s effect on garden birds

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Light pollution dampens urban robins’ song

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