Noise Pollution Is Pouring Into Protected Natural Areas

Rhona Wise/AFP/Getty Images
Rhona Wise/AFP/Getty Images

All right, folks. We’ve had our warnings, and now it really is time to keep it down. Experts say anthropogenic (human-made) noise is drowning out natural silence and sounds in the majority of protected areas in the United States. They published their research in the journal Science.

A babbling brook or a forest full of birdsong may soothe a stressed-out human, but for the plants and animals that live there, every single sound serves a function. Studies have shown that noise pollution can mess up animals’ migration paths, stop them from mating, and lead them to make fatally bad decisions.

Parks, wilderness, and other protected areas currently make up 14 percent of our country’s landmass. But as urbanization continues, spillover from human settlement draws nearer to every open space; 80 percent of the country is within .6 miles of a road and its accompanying traffic.

To find out how far our racket has reached, researchers captured audio recordings at 492 spots across the U.S.—some protected, some not—and used computer modeling to estimate natural sound levels at each location.

The results were not encouraging. The researchers say our noise pollution doubled noise levels in more than half of protected areas. In about one-fifth of those areas, noise was increased tenfold—an increase that shrinks the audible range of a bird’s call to 10 percent of its natural reach.


Median noise exceedance—the amount that anthropogenic noise increases sound levels above the natural level—in protected area units across the contiguous United States. 

R.T. Buxton et al., Science (2017)

“We were surprised we found such high levels of noise pollution in such high amounts of protected areas,” lead author Rachel Buxton of Colorado State University (CSU) told Science.

This is bad for people, too. Counterintuitive though it may sound, tourism plays an integral role in the success of national parks and other protected spaces. But an escape to nature loses some of its appeal if all you can hear are trucks and machinery.

Senior author George Wittemyer, also of CSU, said that while these findings are troubling, it’s important to remember that the worst is not inevitable.

“Numerous noise mitigation strategies have been successfully developed and implemented,” he said in a statement. “Our work provides information to facilitate such efforts in respect to protected areas where natural sounds are integral.”

"Next time you go for a walk in the woods, pay attention to the sounds you hear—the flow of a river, wind through the trees, singing birds, bugling elk,” Buxton added. “These acoustic resources are just as magnificent as visual ones, and deserve our protection.”

This $49 Video Game Design Course Will Teach You Everything From Coding to Digital Art Skills

EvgeniyShkolenko/iStock via Getty Images
EvgeniyShkolenko/iStock via Getty Images

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10 Tips for Watching Backyard Wildlife

Fiona the fox, exploring her territory.
Fiona the fox, exploring her territory.
Courtesy of Kerry Wolfe

Whether you live among acres of sprawling land or look out over a sliver of city sidewalk, if you pay close enough attention, you’re bound to see wildlife right outside your door. So get familiar with your nonhuman neighbors with these 10 tips for backyard wildlife watching. After all, the animals are there—whether you notice them or not.

1. Get curious.

Watching wildlife is a wonderful way to learn about the other inhabitants of your yard. “You can go out and go for a hike and walk to find something, but there’s really a value in sitting quietly in one space and seeing what comes along,” Brian Hess, a wildlife biologist with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, tells Mental Floss. Charismatic creatures like deer and bears are exciting, but there’s no need to wait for something large to come ambling through. Peek between the branches of a shrub and you may find a bird nest tucked within the greenery; move a rock and you’ll likely spot worms wriggling around in the moist earth. Try varying your routine, too, as different animals become more active depending on the time of day.

2. Don’t disturb the wildlife.

A male pheasant walking
Let them strut their stuff in peace.
Courtesy of Kerry Wolfe

Treat wildlife watching as if you’re window shopping in a store stocked with stuff you can’t afford: Basically, look but don’t touch. “My general rule of thumb whenever I’m watching wildlife is if they change their behavior because of my presence, that probably means I’m too close and should back off,” Hess says.

Keeping your distance will help both you and the wildlife stay safe—and make sure any curious pets don’t get too close to wild creatures, either. An animal may attack if it feels threatened, which, as anyone who’s seen Homeward Bound (1993) knows, can lead to some pretty painful encounters. There’s also the risk of zoonotic diseases; though fairly rare, North Americans in particular have to be cautious of rabies.

Avoid feeding wildlife, too (bird feeders are fine—more on that later). Don’t chuck your dog’s uneaten kibble or your dinner scraps out the back door, as teaching wildlife to rely on people for meals can cause unwanted learned behavior and lead to human-animal conflicts.

3. Make your yard wildlife-friendly.

One of the best ways to attract wildlife is to add native plants to your yard. “You can put an oak tree in your yard, watch the life come to it, and help rebuild your local ecosystem,” Doug Tallamy, a professor of entomology at the University of Delaware, tells Mental Floss. A perfectly manicured patch of grass or an exotic shrub may look lovely, but it doesn’t create a suitable habitat for many animals. Most insects are specialized feeders, meaning they’ve evolved over millions of years to eat particular plants. Basically, if you want to see more monarchs, you better start planting some milkweed.

Short on yard space? Urban apartment dwellers can stick pots of native plants in window boxes. Adding even a tiny bit of greenery will help city animals who may not have access to as many resources as their rural counterparts.

Finding native plants is fairly simple. Organizations like the National Wildlife Federation and the Audubon Society (and if you’re in California, the California Native Plant Society) have online databases you can browse.

And, if you’re attracting birds, avoid turning your yard into a stage for Windex commercial-level crashes. If your glass is spotless, stick some decals or tempera paint onto your windows to help prevent bird collisions.

4. Maintain your bird feeder.

Though native plants are a great way to attract wildlife, you can also supplement your yard’s offerings with various bird feeders [PDF]. Make sure you regularly clean your feeders, lest the seeds get wet and grow mold. You should also rake away any discarded shells scattered on the ground, which can collect harmful bacteria. If you live in an area with bears, check with your state’s wildlife agency for their seasonal best practices regarding bird feeders, as foraging ursines love to snack on high-fat, high-protein seeds.

5. Provide water.

A red fox drinks from a water bowl in a backyard
Chasing chipmunks really works up a thirst.
Courtesy of Kerry Wolfe

A tub of water in a shady spot away from your house will help your resident critters and thirsty passersby. If you can, put a large rock or brick in the water bowl, and fill the basin so only part of the object is submerged. This will provide insects and other animals with an extra perch to land on, as they may have a tough time sipping water from a steep-sided dog dish. The rock will also give small creatures an extra escape option, should they accidentally fall into the tub and go for an unplanned swim. Make sure you clean the water bowl regularly—standing water can quickly become a soupy mess of dirt, guano, and mosquito eggs.

6. Get excited about insects!

Put away the insecticide and instead embrace your resident creepy-crawlies. You can have a lot of fun identifying the beetles and butterflies that frequent your yard. And about 90 percent of flowering plants depend on pollinators, so not only is that bee bumbling around your garden cute, it’s also playing a vital role in helping your local ecosystem.

While insects are fascinating in their own right, you can also view them as food for larger creatures. They’re a nutritious meal for animals like birds, lizards, frogs, squirrels, bats, opossums, and much more. Caterpillars in particular are a great source of grub for local and migrant bird populations. “If you want chickadees breeding in your yard, you need to have 6000 to 9000 caterpillars or the chickadees can’t rear their young,” Tallamy tells Mental Floss.

7. When looking for wildlife, use your senses.

There’s a reason avid birders get to know their bird calls. “Hearing wildlife is a great way to start to pay attention,” John Rowden, senior director of bird-friendly communities at the Audubon Society, tells Mental Floss. “Learn the sounds, and it will help you identify the animals.” And if your yard suddenly erupts with a cacophony of squirrel alarm calls, there’s a good chance there’s some sort of predator lurking nearby. Identifying the sounds of nocturnal animals like owls and raccoons will help you discern who's been coming after dark.

You may be able to smell some animals, too. Skunks unleash a notoriously stinky spray when warding off threats; foxes and mountain lions mark their territories with their own funky scents; and desert dwellers claim they can often smell javelina before they see them.

8. Look for signs animals have visited.

Squirrel Tracks in Snow on a Wooden Railing
Clear signs of squirrel traffic.
Colin Temple/iStock via Getty Images

You don’t have to see the animals themselves to find hints of their presence. A fallen feather, a muddy print, a well-walked trail etched into the dirt, and a heaping pile of scat are all clues as to who’s been sharing your yard.

9. Get technological.

Sure, watching wildlife is a great excuse to unplug, but embracing tools and technology can help enhance your experience. A pair of binoculars will transform that blurry blot in the sky into a clearly identifiable bird; a trail camera will snap footage of whatever walks through your yard when you’re not looking. Apps like iNaturalist can help you identify various species and share your findings with fellow members of the community.

10. Document your wildlife observations.

Keep a record of the creatures who frequent your yard. This will help you get a sense of their routines and better identify individual animals. You can keep your logs simple—a quick journal entry or a series of photographs is an excellent way to document your resident wildlife. As a bonus, your observations can also help with citizen science projects, such as the Monarch Joint Venture or Audubon’s Hummingbirds at Home project.