Changing Your Tune To Adapt To The Urban Jungle (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Changing Your Tune To Adapt To The Urban Jungle

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
We turn now from the wellbeing of our city's schools to the wellbeing of our city's birds. Turns out the dull roar of city life is affecting how birds sing their songs. Environment reporter, Sabri Ben-Achour, brings us the latest on what researchers are finding in D.C. and Maryland.

MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR

00:00:22
Have you ever been in a bar where it was just too loud to talk to anybody? Whew, that's better. I said, have you ever been in a bar where it was too just loud to hit on anybody?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE 1

00:00:34
All the time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE 2

00:00:38
Absolutely.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE 3

00:00:39
There's times when you just, you can't.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE 4

00:00:41
I don't go to loud places for that reason.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:00:43
That's Aharon Conerly, Mikey Maliksi, Lance Bullerdick and Vladimir Stanisic, all at various bars along 18th Street and Adams Morgan.

1

00:00:51
I mean, it's pointless.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:00:53
Man, that's terrible. But do you know who feels their pain? Birds. Seriously, birds.

DR. PETER MARRA

00:00:59
We know that birds are adjusting.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:01
Peter Marra is a conservation scientist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. He says a big part of being a bird is singing, it's often to hit on other birds and it's hard to do that because it is really, really noisy in a city.

MARRA

00:01:15
The sounds of trucks.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:16
Air-conditioners.

MARRA

00:01:18
Traffic in general.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:20
It's like living in a bar.

MARRA

00:01:22
Urban noise, those sounds compete with low-frequency sounds.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:25
So birds with lower songs have to sing differently.

MARRA

00:01:29
Those low-pitched sounds decline in five out of six species that we studied in urban areas. So birds have sort of tried to change their songs to higher frequency or mid-frequency songs.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:41
Can you show me a few examples?

MARRA

00:01:43
Sure. Sure. So first I'll play a Carolina Wren in a rural area so where there's very low ambient noise.

MARRA

00:01:54
And this is a recording of a Carolina Wren at an urban site where there's a lot of other background noise.

MARRA

00:02:02
What you can tell is that the pitch of a song of the Carolina Wren in the urban site, it's lost a lot of its low-frequency sound.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:02:11
Here it is again.

MARRA

00:02:11
Rural.

MARRA

00:02:14
Urban.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:02:15
It may be hard for us to hear the distinction, but we aren't birds. Birds probably can't much tell the difference between a lame human pickup line and a really good one either. Singing higher probably won't work for humans.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:02:32
But singing over the traffic isn't the only problem for birds. It turns out that big buildings distort songs too, especially the highest pitches.

MARRA

00:02:40
Their songs are compromised by the buildings themselves, which absorb songs and refract songs and songs and sounds bounce off those buildings.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:02:48
So higher pitch songs like this House Wren's.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:02:54
Echo in weird ways and get garbled.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:02:58
So high pitch birds sing lower. That could work for humans.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:03:10
Several of the species Marra and his colleagues looked at narrowed the range of their songs, cutting out the high parts and the low parts. So what does all this mean? Marra says we don't know yet.

MARRA

00:03:19
You have animals who are adjusting their communication, they're changing the way they speak, their accents might be changing. But to what degree is this changing the number of young they have or how well they survive?

BEN-ACHOUR

00:03:29
Could be that noise is a reason some birds stay out of cities.

MARRA

00:03:32
One of the species that don't occur here anymore, that have already been impacted, when they're absent it's a difficult thing to really understand.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:03:39
Maybe they'll change their language.

MARRA

00:03:41
That would be an evolutionary question.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:03:42
Or maybe it'll change what city birds can hear.

MARRA

00:03:45
Right. So it may be that the bird, the cardinal or the Carolina Wren, that's also receiving that signal, may be modifying the range at which it receives things.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:03:54
Or maybe it means absolutely none of these things. But there is a point to thinking about it.

MARRA

00:03:59
Urban environment pose lots of challenges for animals, challenges we're really just starting now to quantify. When you think about an animal like a bird, it's not just about where they nest. It's not just about where they eat. It's also about how well they can communicate in this urban, concrete jungle.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:04:16
An urban jungle where a good pickup line is key not just to a fun night out, but to the survival of the species. I'm Sabri Ben-Achour.

SHEIR

00:04:25
To hear more bird sounds and to learn how you can get involved with bird research in your own backyard, check out our website, metroconnection.org.

SHEIR

00:04:42
After the break, trains, planes, automobiles and claustrophobia. What it's like to travel when confined spaces give you the willies.

MS. KATHLEEN CAGGIANO

00:04:51
I felt my throat closing in and I couldn't make it. I went a couple stops and then I had to get out.

SHEIR

00:04:57
It's just ahead on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.
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