How a COVID lockdown changed bird behaviour

Sightings of some common bird species increased during the UK lockdown in 2020.Credit: Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty

Not only humans have changed during the COVID-19 pandemic – birds too. Four in five of the most-watched birds in the UK changed their behavior during the country’s first lockdown in 2020, although they did so in different ways depending on the species, according to one analysis.

The study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B on 09/211, is one of several who have used the disruptions caused by the pandemic – from reducing the number of cars on the roads to the closure of some national parks – to quantify humanity’s impact on nature. Although some research has found lockdowns have had a largely positive effect on wildlife2the latest data from the United Kingdom show a much more differentiated picture (see Bird Behaviour).

BIRD BEHAVIOR.  Graph showing how bird behavior changed in the UK during the country's first COVID-19 lockdown in 2020.

Photo credit: Warrington et al./Proceedings of the Royal Society B

“People haven’t disappeared during lockdown,” says co-author Miyako Warrington, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. “We changed our behavior and wildlife responded.”

Rare experiment

In the early months of the pandemic, social media was buzzing with reports of wild animals being spotted in unusual places. These claims were partially confirmed when Warrington and her colleagues reported that in 2020, many bird species in the United States and Canada were observed moving into areas normally occupied by humans2.

To see how a COVID-19 lockdown was affecting birds in the UK, Warrington and her colleagues counted sightings of the 25 most common birds between March and July 2020 – during the country’s first lockdown – and compared their data set to data the previous years. In total, the study included around 870,000 observations.

The team then compared that information to data showing how people split their time between home, essential shops and parks: three places people were allowed to be in the UK during lockdown.

With people spending more time at home and in parks than before March 2020, the analysis found that 20 of the 25 bird species studied behaved differently during the lockdown. Parks – which were inundated with visitors – saw increases in numbers of corvids and gulls, while smaller birds such as blue tits (Cyanistes caeruleus) and house sparrows (Passer Domesticus), were seen less frequently than in previous years. And because people were spending more time at home, the number of bird species visiting home gardens also fell by around a quarter compared to previous years.

Other species, including rock pigeons (Columba livia), didn’t respond to the lockdown at all. Warrington found this surprising as pigeons are city dwellers and she thought they would be affected by changes in people’s behavior. “But they don’t give a shit what we do,” she says.

Adaptation to Change

The birds that changed their habits during lockdown were likely responding to changes in human behavior, Warrington says. Tits and other birds, whose numbers have fallen, may have fled when people and their pets began spending more time in parks and gardens. The opposite could be true for scavengers like gulls and corvids, which may have benefited from park visitors leaving litter so they can feed.

Combined with the results of other studies, the behavior of British birds shows the complex effects of lockdown on wildlife and underscores the importance of reducing human disturbance to animals, says Raoul Manenti, a conservation zoologist at the University of Milan in Italy.

For Warrington, that means acknowledging that lockdowns have not been generally good for wildlife. “Our relationship with nature is complicated,” she says. By developing a better understanding of this relationship, “we know we can make positive change as long as we do it in a thoughtful way.”

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