Monique Keiran: Songbirds trying to be heard over traffic again, after last spring's quiet

Love — that special kind of sappy, springtime love, or lurv — is in the air, but the signals aren’t coming through as clearly as they did last year.

I’ve heard eagles whistling to their mates and raven pairs chortling to each other. Robins are striving to out-chirp each other in the days’ early hours, the varied thrushes are rending the mornings with their off-key whistles, and towhees are mimicking squeaky hinges. The chestnut-backed chickadee has changed its tune from “chickadee-dee” to “Hey, baby” and the Pacific wren’s avian arias wind through the nearby park.

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The mating calls of our feathered neighbours have hit the airwaves once again, but compared to last year, the songbirds are having to work harder at it.

The region is busier than it was 12 months ago. Although we humans are still not back up to our pre-pandemic levels of business and activity, we’re moving about more, more is open and more is going on.

Last April, we were sheltering in place — and in shock — in the first month of the pandemic shutdown. Harbour Air had grounded its fleet. Few planes were taking off or landing at the main airport. B.C. Ferries had reduced its sailings. Rush-hour traffic on the highways into town consisted primarily of tumbleweeds.

Almost overnight, the region became quiet and still.

It wasn’t just here. Around the world, city dwellers became reacquainted with silent streets and smogless skies. Journalists reporting live from cities in Europe, Asia, Australia and the U.S. spoke of empty roadways and deserted business districts. Scientists measuring ambient sound levels in four U.S. states found that people encountered half the usual levels and amounts of noise during the first months of the pandemic.

Data collected from volunteer Apple Watch users in Florida, New York, California and Texas showed that average sound levels dropped about three decibels in March and April last year compared to two months earlier.

For the first time in many decades, natural sounds — wind in the trees, rain, waves and birdsong — dominated urban soundscapes.

Apparently, the birds liked it.

Songbirds find us humans to be exceedingly noisy. Our din — traffic roar, airport rumbles, marine racket, construction clatter, leaf-blower blare, stereo-system blast, and so on — drowns out their conversations. They must shout and shriek or wait until it passes to make themselves heard.

A number of studies show that city birds sing louder and at different pitches than their country cousins do. Biologists have found that, to overcome traffic noise, red-winged blackbirds, eastern bluebirds, song sparrows, Eastern wood peewees and other songbirds sing more and higher-pitched song phrases that they can also easily belt out more loudly than their cousins in quieter habitats do.

In some cases, the birds even strip down their songs to the essentials in order to yell them more loudly.

But for a couple of months last spring, that changed. All of a sudden, right at the height of the northern hemisphere mating season, the 2020 bird-dating scene switched from the equivalent of the Hï Ibiza dance-club party to a bucolic garden scene of quiet courtship and flirtation, like that painted by 17th-century French painter Nicolas Poussin.

Where before only short, basic phrases yelled across the meadow could be heard over our noise, it became possible for songbird suitors to softly twitter sweet nothings to their sweeties through the greenery.

Bird researchers in San Francisco compared the mellifluous springtime songs of white-crowned sparrows recorded before COVID-19 restrictions to those that came during the lockdown in that city. They found that the birds sang more quietly during the lockdown months. Not having to compete with our racket, they weren’t shouting to be heard, and their songs carried over greater distances.

The songs were also much more complex and more complete, with more trills, variation and subtlety in pitch and tone. The bird blokes adjusted their pickup lines to include far more information — crooning about the exquisiteness of their territories, their nest-making skills, their respiratory and flying fitness to be mates, fathers and providers of grubs for chicks, and whatever else goes into feathered folks’ breathless Lurv Serenades.

The ladies, in turn, were charmed. Researchers analyzing the pre-pandemic and lockdown soundtracks say the latter recordings picked up the sounds of female white-crowned sparrows cooing lightly right back at the guys, egging them on.

For that is the point of early springtime birdsong in the northern latitudes — to whit, to woo.

keiran_monique@rocketmail.com

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