Bald Eagles, perhaps our most iconic cottage bird species, altered their migration paths across the whole continent, increasing in counties with stronger lockdowns and moving away from counties with weaker lockdowns.
Osprey showed the same pattern as bald eagles, increasing in abundance in counties with the greatest decreases in traffic.
American Goldfinches increased in counties where the strictest lockdowns happened at the same time as their migration. Surprisingly, their abundances also decreased in cities during lockdowns. Scientists aren’t sure why, but they might have been disturbed by humans and pets using backyards and parks more than in previous years.
During the pandemic, robins stopped avoiding habitat near highways, and increased in abundance within 10 km or more of airports. This suggests that even common species are affected by human traffic more than we realized.
Barn Swallows, a threatened species, increased tremendously in counties where lockdowns happened at the same time as swallow migration. Although barn swallows strongly avoided highways before the pandemic, they stopped avoiding roads when traffic decreased due to lockdowns.
Belted Kingfisher, a common lakeside bird, moved away from counties with weaker lockdowns and into counties with the strongest decreases in traffic.
Warblers, such as this black-and-white Warbler, almost universally benefited from lockdowns. Black-and-white warblers increased in cities during the pandemic, especially where lockdowns coincided with peak migration.
Great blue herons strongly avoided wetlands as far as 10 km or more from airports before the pandemic, but this avoidance almost completely disappeared when passenger air traffic plummeted.
Ducks, like this blue-winged teal, showed mixed responses to lockdowns, but mostly benefited. Blue-winged teal abundances quadrupled near airports during lockdowns.
Although our most common woodpeckers, downy and hairy, weren’t particularly affected by lockdowns, other woodpeckers were. Northern flickers, shown here, increased in cities.
Native sparrows, such as this white-throated sparrow (who serenade us with Oh Sweet Canada Canada Canada each spring), benefited from lockdowns, particularly in counties where traffic decreased the most.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds, those flying jewels, benefited tremendously from lockdowns. Abundances tripled near airports, and hummingbirds migrated across the continent differently, preferring counties with greater decreases in traffic, and where lockdowns and hummer migration occurred at the same time.
In the quiet months following the initial COVID-19 lockdowns, it was easy to imagine that birds and many other wildlife species might be able to, finally, give a sigh of relief as human traffic plummeted. As traffic declined, so did air pollution, noise, and risks of getting run over by a speeding van carrying a family late for hockey practice.
But as a conservation biologist I wondered if there might be unexpected risks of decreased traffic, too. Many species of birds, such as hawks, jays, and ravens have benefited from the predictable food sources provided by roadkill, and just as human restaurants shut their doors during the depths of the pandemic, the roadkill bar was suddenly closed, shuttered, with nary a dead squirrel in sight. Because lockdowns at these scales were unprecedented in our modern age, the effect on the species around us was simply unknown. But it also gave us a chance to learn what a quieter, calmer world might do for wildlife.
As soon as lockdowns started to hit North America, I wanted to study their impacts on birds. The problem was that, just like everyone else, I wasn’t actually allowed to go anywhere. So instead, I turned to volunteers from North America, from Alaska to Florida and across southern Canada, who used a phone app called eBird to record the birds they saw. My team used these data to compare birds seen during the pandemic with birds seen in the same locations in the three years before the pandemic.
As a scientist, I know I’m not really supposed to be biased. But as a cottager, I was a little obsessed about how our cottage birds might have been affected. I thought about it every time I looked out of one of my windows or went for a paddle. This obsession grew into a massive study that used more than 4 million bird observations of 82 species to understand if birds were better able to navigate human landscapes as they migrated north last spring during lockdowns. And it was clear, right away, that many birds flourished—including many that help make our cottage landscapes so special.
Here are some tips on what we can do in an ongoing way to help bird populations.
WHAT WE CAN DO
Drive less. Ok, I’ll admit it… as a cottager, I have a hard time getting my head around this. But I’d be dishonest if I didn’t recommend it. I have decreased my driving impact by setting up a small home office at the cottage, letting me stay for longer rather than driving back and forth as often.
Drive slower. Slower vehicles make less noise, use less fuel and thus produce less air pollution, and are less likely to hit wildlife. Just stick to the speed limit.
Fly less. About a quarter of the species in this study benefited from decreased air traffic during the pandemic, and air travel has a very large environmental footprint in general. If we all decreased our work and recreational flights a little, it could make a difference environmentally, while also saving us money. Consider an extra week at the cottage instead of an international vacation.
Share the shore. Our research shows that almost all birds, even those that seem to choose to hang out near people, are actually quite sensitive to human activity. While boating, give birds on the water as much space as possible, and slow down near shorelines. In the spring, particularly, give shorebirds on beaches plenty of space—they might be nesting.
Make windows safe. About 22 million birds are killed by hitting windows of single-family dwellings in Canada each year, and rural dwellings, such as cottages, pose particularly high risks. If you’re building a new cottage, you can make bird-friendly design decisions such as ensuring window screens are located outside of the glass, but there are also a number of treatments for existing windows that reduce collision risk. To work well, treatments must be on the outside of the window and be no more than a couple of inches apart. You can learn more about window treatments at FLAP.org.
Love Your Land. We don’t fight to protect things we don’t value. Enjoying your cottage and the birds that grace it, sharing the space with your in-laws, and inviting your kid’s friends up to enjoy the magic of nature will all help create a society that values and seeks to save the species with which we share our world.