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Dr. Kelly Ronald, Biology

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The recent surge in urbanization has increased pollution, which includes both physical pollution (e.g. exhaust) and sensory pollution (e.g., anthropogenic noise). We know birds increase the frequency and amplitude of their song in urban areas to reduce masking by low frequency noise pollution. However, bird song (i.e., a signal) is also affected by the environment and accompanying ambient noise. This study investigates how anthropogenic disturbances alter the ability of birds to communicate. Specifically, we aim to understand how urbanization affects the propagation of bird song by examining differences in active space, or the maximum distance a receiver can detect a signal, across an urbanization gradient. This study utilized the house sparrow (Passer domesticus) and the house finch (Haemorhous mexicanus), as both species inhabit urban areas and rely on vocal cues from conspecifics. Songs were recorded in the laboratory and also collected from the Macaulay Library and Stokes Fieldguide to Bird Songs. These songs were played back with a speaker at urban, rural, and suburban locations in Holland, MI, and recorded at a variety of distances up to 100 meters. This set-up mimicked bird communication, with the speaker acting as the sender, the song as the signal, and the recorder as the receiver. We expect bird song in rural areas to have a larger active space compared to urban environments due to lower levels of noise pollution. Analysis of sound files to determine active space will include cross correlations of the playback against the original recorded song. The results of this study will be essential in understanding how urbanization has impacted bird communication; noise pollution may inhibit birds ability to communicate to potential mates or kin.


This research was supported by funding through the Garden Club of America Clara Carter Higgins Summer Environmental Scholarship Award and the Christian Scholars Foundation Emerging Scholars Network Grant Program.

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