Impact of social distancing on bird activity

By eBird Northwest Team April 1, 2020
Acorn Woodpecker Melanerpes formicivorus

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, communities across the Pacific Northwest are being urged to practice social distancing to slow the infection rate and protect those most at risk. This has resulted in a rapid shift in human behavior that could impact birds in urban and suburban neighborhoods. With fewer cars on the road and planes in the sky, we may observe a drop in anthropogenic noise and/or a decline in outdoor concentrations of air pollutants associated with emissions from motor vehicles. With park shelters, playgrounds, waterfronts, and sports courts closed, the number of people visiting local green spaces will decline; such places may become short-term refugia for birds, perhaps influencing where they forage or build nests this spring.

This is an unprecedented moment in human history. Our connection to and interaction with nature will inevitably change as our communities respond to COVID-19. With social distancing measures in place across the Pacific Northwest for weeks to months, we are presented with a unique opportunity to learn more about how human behavior directly and indirectly affects birds and identify actions we can take in the future to safeguard birds in urban and suburban settings.

Researchers at the University of Washington Quantitative Ecology Lab are launching a community science program through eBird to monitor birds in urban and suburban neighborhoods across the Pacific Northwest while social distancing measures are in place:

  • LOCATION: We are recruiting volunteers to monitor birds in their own backyard or their favorite local green space — a place they can walk to without violating current shelter-in-place orders.
  • PROTOCOL: Volunteers will observe birds at that location for ten minutes and record all the birds they see or hear. Ideally, they will return to their site to repeat this survey at the same time of day at least one day a week. Volunteers should submit a checklist for each stationary point count and include the phrase “social distancing survey” in the comment field.
  • STUDY PERIOD: Data collection will start April 1, 2020 and continue through June 30, 2020; volunteers may join the project at any time. We also ask that volunteers agree to repeat this data collection in Spring 2021 so we can compare their observations to bird sightings during a season not affected by social distancing.

Our team will provide regular updates on this project to all volunteers and ensure they are acknowledged in any deliverables. We plan to use the data that is collected to investigate how metrics such as traffic, anthropogenic noise, and air quality affect the detection and presence of local birds as well as species richness across the region.

We have two goals: 1) to learn more about how birds are affected by human activity, and 2) to provide our community with an opportunity to engage with nature during increasingly uncertain times. The next several months will undoubtedly trigger a great deal of anxiety within our community. Research has shown that spending time in nature supports mental health, and it is our hope that participating in this community science project will offer volunteers an additional tool for self-care in the months ahead. Please note that this project is not intended to offer a “silver lining” during a national public health crisis; the health and safety of our community is and will remain our number one priority. To sign up, please fill out this form. If you have any questions, please contact Olivia Sanderfoot (Project Coordinator) by emailing oliviavs@uw.edu.

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