During a birdwatching trip last month to Costa Rica, I was impressed by how little our enjoyment of the wildlife and natural world was interrupted by human-made noises.
Nearly everywhere we went – and we visited many parts of the West Virginia-sized country – we were mesmerized by the unimpeded sounds of howler monkeys waking us up each morning, unusual insect noises in the rainforests, and beautiful birdsong everywhere. While hiking and observing hummingbirds, parrots, sloths and all sorts of other amazing creatures, we seldom heard the noise of cars or planes or other signs of human civilization. Not even other people.
It was a far cry from the experience of most places in the United States, where traffic noise, planes and other abrasive man-made sounds often intrude upon one’s enjoyment of the natural world. As I’ve learned, it’s not just my poor hearing that makes it difficult to listen to birds singing in many places around our region.
Yet people seeking to enjoy nature aren’t the only ones who are sometimes annoyed by harsh human noises in seemingly wild corners of the country. Many animals are, too. And it may be having negative consequences on their health and safety.
Many birds and frogs in urban and suburban areas, for example, must sing louder to attract a mate than their relatives in the countryside. Those that don’t increase their volume can have difficulty finding a prospective partner because the soundscape is so cluttered that the animals can’t hear each other calling.
Whales and dolphins face a similar difficulty. Despite how loud their underwater calls are and the great distances those sounds can travel through water, marine mammals struggle to have their voices heard because of the tremendous increase in shipping, oil and gas exploration, seafloor mining, offshore construction and other industrial uses of the oceans. Even recreational boats and Jet Skis traversing coastal environments are having negative consequences on marine mammals seeking to communicate with their fellow creatures.
Lots of other marine life, from fish to shrimp and crabs, make sounds in the water to communicate, detect prey, avoid predators or for other purposes, and the abundance of ship noises and other human sounds has been shown to have an impact on their behaviors, too.
Another example: Owls have evolved particularly refined hearing to be able to detect and capture prey in complete darkness, but that skill erodes as background noise gets louder. One study found that for every 1 decibel increase in background noise, owls are 8 percent less successful in capturing prey. And bats, which use sound to navigate at night, can become disoriented when an area becomes noisier and noisier until they must abandon the area entirely.
With this in mind, let’s take some steps to reduce noise pollution to improve our enjoyment of the natural world and decrease its impact on local wildlife. There’s not much we can do individually about shipping noises, traffic noise, or airplanes flying overhead, but we can use quieter, non-mechanical tools when performing outdoor maintenance and find quieter ways of enjoying the outdoors.
The easiest thing we can do, however, is to keep our voices low when walking on trails. Talk like you’re in a museum. Voices travel far in the forest, and for most of us it’s the loud voices when you’re not expecting them that has the greatest negative impact on our enjoyment of nature.
Your fellow park lovers and nature enthusiasts will appreciate your efforts. And so will the birds, the bats and the bees.