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Tweeting to Keep Love in the Air

By Larraine Roulston:

While we humans gleefully sing the praises of Valentine’s Day with heartfelt gifts and romantic songs, the birds in Alberta are forced to change their love tunes. Recently published in The Condor: Ornithological Applications, a study suggests that the noise emanating from the Alberta Tar Sands oil drilling is drowning out critical mating signals of certain bird species.

Researchers from the University of Manitoba have been studying the effects of the entire oil and gas industry infrastructure on the melodies of the Savannah sparrows. They compared these birdsongs with those found in quieter areas. By recording the tunes of 76 Alberta birds over a two-year period during the May-June singing season, their findings revealed that sparrows residing in the oil patch region had modified their frequencies, syllables and tones.

Dr. Nicola Koper, a terrestrial ecologist at the university, stated, “We looked at the individual syllables to find out what it was they were actually changing. That was neat, because depending on what type of information they were trying to communicate, the adjustment of their song was different.”

As these male birds are adjusting their love calls to attract females, the study reveals important conservation implications. Koper explained, “It sheds light on the ways human activities may impact the birds’ ability to reproduce and communicate danger effectively. The beginning of the sparrow’s song is a call for the other birds to listen, while the notes that follow identify its species. Towards the end of the song, the Savannah sparrow typically describes how ‘sexy’
it is, compelling a mate to come forward.”

Each male bird’s song contains a variety of clicks, high clusters and trills to promote his attractiveness. Koper suggests that noisy oil and gas facilities should connect wells to the power grid, which will save them from having to use loud generators that interfere with a bird’s love call to attract a suitable partner. The research on how the sparrow adapts could help scientists understand how other bird species fair. Currently, a second study is underway to determine the
behavior of the birds that listen to the sparrow’s new musical warbles. In Canada, the Savannah sparrow is not considered endangered; however, its numbers are on the decline.

Marine mammals, as well, rely on underwater songs to communicate danger, to hunt, and to attract mates. Similar research could have implications for the noise levels off the British Columbia coast. Concerns for the remaining resident killer whales include not only
oil spills, but also the increased noise in pipeline projects and oil tanker traffic that transports oil from Alberta to Asian markets.

To help the birds’ love songs, what can individuals do?

-Tweet and twitter friends about noise pollution that affects birds and other wildlife populations.

-Ask chocolate manufacturers who use plastic forms to separate the chocolates to consider switching to an edible wafer or recycled lightweight pulp paper separators.

-Select flowers by handpicking them to avoid the clear plastic wrapping.

-Purchase Valentine’s Day cards that contain recycled fiber or are printed on FSC paper, or make your own.

-Avoid purchasing plastic decorations.

-Choose locally produced red wines to lessen traveling distance.

-Vote for politicians that uphold environmental scientific research!

Happy Valentine’s Day.

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Larraine writes illustrated children’s adventure books on composting and pollinating.  To view, visit www.castlecompost.com

About Larraine Roulston

A mother of 4 with 6 wonderful grandchildren, Larraine has been active in the environmental movement since the early l970s. When the first blue boxes for recycling were launched in her region, she began writing a local weekly newspaper column to promote the 3Rs. Since that time, she has been a freelance writer for several publications, including BioCycle magazine. As a composting advocate, Larraine authors children's adventure stories that combine composting facts with literature. Currently she is working on the 6th book of her Pee Wee at Castle Compost series, which can be viewed at www.castlecompost.com. As well, Larraine and her husband Pete have built a straw bale home and live in Ontario.

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