Squawk this way! Birds have moved closer to human-inhabited areas like highways and airports during the coronavirus pandemic

  • Birds have moved closer to areas inhabited by humans during the pandemic
  • Sixty-six of 82 species were in ‘greater numbers’ in areas where humans live and flock to, such as airports, major roads and urban areas
  • Bald eagles were spotted more frequently in cities with the strongest lockdowns
  • The red-throated hummingbird was three times as likely to be seen near airports 
  • It’s possible more birds were spotted because people were home at the height of the pandemic or an unknown change in behavior 

Humans may have decreased their mobility during the COVID-19 pandemic, but birds have significantly upped theirs, moving closer to areas that are inhabited by humans, a new study has found.   

Researchers from the University of Manitoba and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology looked at the records of 4.3 million birds from March to May in the years 2017 to 2020 and found that 80 percent (66) of the 82 species were in ‘greater numbers’ in areas where humans live and flock to, such as airports, major roads and urban areas.

The researchers found that bald eagles, the national bird of the U.S., were spotted more frequently in cities with the strongest lockdowns.

Birds have moved closer to areas inhabited by humans during the pandemic. Bald eagles were spotted more frequently in cities with the strongest lockdowns

Other birds, such as the red-throated hummingbird, were three times as likely to be seen within two-thirds of a mile of an airport. 

It’s unclear at this time why the birds have been spotted closer to humans, the researchers said.

However, they speculate it could be because more people were home birdwatching at the height of the pandemic or perhaps an unknown change in behavior.

Sixty-six of 82 species were in ‘greater numbers’ in areas where humans live and flock to, such as airports, major roads and urban areas

It’s possible more birds were spotted because people were home at the height of the pandemic or an unknown change in behavior

‘A lot of species we really care about became more abundant in human landscapes during the pandemic,’ one of the study’s co-authors, Nicola Koper, said in a statement.

‘I was blown away by how many species were affected by decreased traffic and activity during lockdowns.’

Experts are not sure why the birds have been seen closer to major areas such as cities, where humans live and work. 

It could be that more people were indoors, birdwatching, during the height of pandemic, or it could be something else.  

‘We also needed to be aware of the detectability issue,’ co-author Alison Johnston explained. 

‘Were species being reported in higher numbers because people could finally hear the birds without all the traffic noise, or was there a real ecological change in the numbers of birds present?’   

Others, including the black and white warbler, were seen closer to airports

The experts did find that a few species were less likely to be seen near human habitats, such as red-tailed hawks.

It’s possible this may be due to fewer animals being killed as a result of less cars on the road.

However, the results were seen across the spectrum – from larger to small – suggesting that the increased numbers were true for reasons other than quieter environments. 

‘Our results indicate that human activity affects many of North America’s birds and suggest that we could make urban spaces more attractive to birds by reducing traffic and mitigating the disturbance from human transportation after we emerge from the pandemic,’ researchers wrote in the study/

The researchers used volunteers, as well as pandemic and pre-pandemic eBirds reports to come up with their observations.

The findings were true for both larger birds (which are easier to spot) as well as smaller birds, which are harder to detect underneath the noise of traffic. 

Additional studies are needed to learn if the behavior is part of a longer-term change by the birds.

Experts will look at their life spans, population sizes and other inputs to determine how the birds are reacting to human presence.

‘Having so many people in North America and around the world paying attention to nature has been crucial to understanding how wildlife react to our presence,’ the study’s lead author Michael Schrimpf, said.  

The study was published last month in the journal Science Advances. 

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