City Birds Bring the Noise

02/06/2013 04:02 pm ET Updated Apr 08, 2013

Living near the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway isn't half bad. You learn to wipe the soot off houseplants, step over the dead pigeons that fall from perches beneath the overpass, and eventually find the constant din of vehicles zooming in and out of the Manhattan Tunnel soothing, like a bizarre setting on a white noise machine.

Humans are pretty good at adapting to an urban habitat (even if they grew up listening to the chirping crickets and cooing mourning doves of the Pennsylvania countryside). So I'll probably survive the noise pollution, if not the soot. Other species aren't so lucky, like tiny European tree frogs that fall silent as traffic noise increases or huge whales that become confused when busy harbors send ships and sounds out to sea. Throughout the animal kingdom, many a mating call, predator alert, and where's-mommy cry is going unheard, swallowed up by the big human hum.

But then, every once in a while, you hear about species that refuse to be drowned out. Blackbirds, for instance, have adapted well to city life -- and they aren't keeping quiet about it.

Previous studies have found that some urban birds are singing at higher frequencies in order to stand apart from the lower-pitch rumblings of cars, planes, and trains. But a recent paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B suggests that the birds aren't just going high -- they're also going loud. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology found that common blackbirds in Vienna sing louder than their crooning counterparts in the woods outside the city and concluded that high-pitched songs are just a convenient side effect of the birds turning up the volume.

Similarly, nightingales in Berlin take it 14 decibels louder than their country cousins, cranking it up more during workday rush hours than weekend mornings. And in noisier parts of England, robins belt out birdsongs at night, rather than in the daytime, when humans are awake and making a racket.

I'm pretty sure I've witnessed this phenomenon in Brooklyn, too, every summer morning at about 5 a.m. That's when "bird o'clock" strikes. These early birds have pipes, and leaving your window open the night before is as good as setting your alarm. Over the last century, many of New York City's avian musicians -- shrikes, grasshopper sparrows, eastern blue birds -- have moved on to grassier pastures. But by the sound of it, those that have stuck around (or moved in) at least seem to be doing ok. I'd sleep better, though, if I knew they'd go on squawking their hearts out no matter how hard the city roars. If research didn't suggest that the constant shouting might eventually take its toll on their health, I'd root for the little guys to get even louder and more annoying -- then maybe we'd know how they feel.

This story was originally published by OnEarth.