Sensory pollutants alter bird phenology and fitness across a continent

Abstract

Expansion of anthropogenic noise and night lighting across our planet1,2 is of increasing conservation concern3,4,5,6. Despite growing knowledge of physiological and behavioural responses to these stimuli from single-species and local-scale studies, whether these pollutants affect fitness is less clear, as is how and why species vary in their sensitivity to these anthropic stressors. Here we leverage a large citizen science dataset paired with high-resolution noise and light data from across the contiguous United States to assess how these stimuli affect reproductive success in 142 bird species. We find responses to both sensory pollutants linked to the functional traits and habitat affiliations of species. For example, overall nest success was negatively correlated with noise among birds in closed environments. Species-specific changes in reproductive timing and hatching success in response to noise exposure were explained by vocalization frequency, nesting location and diet. Additionally, increased light-gathering ability of species’ eyes was associated with stronger advancements in reproductive timing in response to light exposure, potentially creating phenological mismatches7. Unexpectedly, better light-gathering ability was linked to reduced clutch failure and increased overall nest success in response to light exposure, raising important questions about how responses to sensory pollutants counteract or exacerbate responses to other aspects of global change, such as climate warming. These findings demonstrate that anthropogenic noise and light can substantially affect breeding bird phenology and fitness, and underscore the need to consider sensory pollutants alongside traditional dimensions of the environment that typically inform biodiversity conservation.

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Fig. 1: Anthropogenic noise and night lighting are widespread and affect a variety of species.
Fig. 2: Responses to light and noise by birds in open and closed habitats.
Fig. 3: Relationships between species-specific responses to noise or light (model estimate ± s.e.) and functional traits.

Data availability

The datasets analysed during this study are available at https://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.dbrv15dzc; Additional publicly available data used in this study include: Anthropogenic noise levels from the National Park Service Data Store (https://irma.nps.gov/DataStore/Reference/Profile/2217356); New World Atlas of Artificial Night Sky Brightness (https://dataservices.gfz-potsdam.de/contact/showshort.php?id=escidoc:1541893&contactform); the 2011 US National Land Cover Database (https://www.mrlc.gov/data/nlcd-2011-land-cover-conus-0); US Human population density data (https://data.census.gov/cedsci/); EltonTraits 1.0 database (http://www.esapubs.org/archive/ecol/E095/178/), Birds of North America Online (recently changed to Birds of the World, https://birdsoftheworld.org/bow/home) and vocal frequency (https://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.75nn1932) and body morphology data (https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.3527864.v1). Source data are provided with this paper.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the NestWatch Program for use of their nesting database, the volunteers who monitored the nests and F. Rousset for advice in using the spaMM package. Supported by US National Science Foundation grants 1414171 to C.D.F. and J.R.B., 1556177 to J.R.B., 1556192 to C.D.F. and 1812280 to J.N.P.; NASA Ecological Forecasting grant NNX17AG36G to N.H.C., C.D.F. and J.R.B.; and Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science KAKENHI grant 17J00646 to M.S.

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Contributions

C.D.F., J.R.B. and C.J.W.M. conceived the project. C.B.C. and J.V. contributed geospatial NestWatch data and data validation, D.J.M and K.M.F. provided key data on noise and night lighting and L.P.T. provided key trait data. M.S., A.A.W., J.N.P. and C.D.F. performed analyses with advice from M.A.D. and N.H.C. All authors contributed to the writing of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Clinton D. Francis.

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Peer review information Nature thanks Albert Phillimore and Andrew Radford for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Natural log of zenith artificial sky brightness as a ratio to the natural background sky brightness.

Brighter colours indicate higher light levels.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Anthropogenic component of sound levels (L50, A-weighted dB) across the contiguous United States.

Brighter colours indicate higher sound levels. Sound levels used in analyses were exceedance values, calculated by the logarithmic subtraction of the natural from the existing sound projections.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Exposure to noise and light.

Reproduction or breeding phenology was influenced by noise or light for most species, and mean exposure to noise and to light per species were positively correlated (solid black line, Spearman’s correlation test; n = 27, rho = 0.830, P < 0.001). Points and error bars denote mean ± s.d. Twenty-four of the 27 species had apparent responses warranting consideration with 85% CIs that did not overlap zero. Red squares denote species affected by both noise and light, red triangles and circles indicate those affected by either noise or light, respectively, and blue diamonds denote species that appear uninfluenced by either stimulus. Thick horizontal and vertical yellow lines represent mean exposure levels to light and noise, respectively, across all nests in the dataset.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Forest plot illustrating estimated effect sizes and 95% CI of noise (red) and light (blue) on clutch initiation date.

Spatially explicit linear mixed-effect model parameter estimates are centred and scaled for direct comparison. Diamonds for ‘Overall’ reflect means for listed species, where the diamond centre denotes the mean effect (vertical dashed lines) and the width of the diamond reflects the 95% CI. See Supplementary Table 7 for more model results for each species.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Forest plot illustrating estimated effect sizes and 95% CI of noise (red) and light (blue) on clutch size.

Spatially explicit generalized linear mixed-effect model parameter estimates are centred and scaled for direct comparison. Diamonds for ‘Overall’ reflect means for listed species, where the diamond centre denotes the mean effect (vertical dashed lines) and the width of the diamond reflects the 95% CI. See Supplementary Table 7 for more model results for each species.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Forest plot illustrating estimated effect sizes and 95% CI of noise (red) and light (blue) on clutch failure.

Spatially explicit generalized linear mixed-effect model parameter estimates are centred and scaled for direct comparison. Diamonds for ‘Overall’ reflect means for listed species, where the diamond centre denotes the mean effect (vertical dashed lines) and the width of the diamond reflects the 95% CI. See Supplementary Table 7 for more model results for each species.

Extended Data Fig. 7 Forest plot illustrating estimated effect sizes and 95% CI of noise (red) and light (blue) on incidence of partial hatch.

Spatially explicit generalized linear mixed-effect model parameter estimates are centred and scaled for direct comparison. Diamonds for ‘Overall’ reflect means for listed species, where the diamond centre denotes the mean effect (vertical dashed lines) and the width of the diamond reflects the 95% CI. See Supplementary Table 7 for more model results for each species.

Extended Data Fig. 8 Forest plot illustrating estimated effect sizes and 95% CI of noise (red) and light (blue) on overall nest success.

Spatially explicit generalized linear mixed-effect model parameter estimates are centred and scaled for direct comparison. Diamonds for ‘Overall’ reflect means for above-listed species. where the diamond centre denotes the mean effect (vertical dashed lines) and the width of the diamond reflects the 95% CI. House sparrow (Passer domesticus) not included here because of management actions on nests of this species during the nestling period. See Supplementary Table 7 for more model results for each species.

Extended Data Fig. 9 Multiple traits linked to responses to noise and light exposure.

Light bulbs reflect responses to light, and speakers reflect responses to noise. Red symbols reflect a decline in fitness, or delay in timing for clutch initiation, and blue symbols reflect an improvement in fitness, or advancement in timing for clutch initiation. Symbol shading reflects the strength of the observed effect. See Supplementary Table 8 for individual model results. Light bulb and speaker symbols are from the R package emojifont69.

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Senzaki, M., Barber, J.R., Phillips, J.N. et al. Sensory pollutants alter bird phenology and fitness across a continent. Nature 587, 605–609 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2903-7

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