Nature Notes: All That Racket

There has been very little scientific research into the impact of very loud noises on birds and other wild animals

   I was at Morton Wildlife Refuge the other day when one of the private ferrying helicopters flew over on its way to East Hampton Town Airport. It’s hard to tell how high it was, but it seemed much lower than 2,000 feet and it made quite a racket as it passed over my head and, incidentally, over one of the osprey nests we put up around 1988 on the Jessup’s Neck spit. The ospreys were back. The female was sitting down low on the nest, and it was hard to tell if she was affected by the noise and vibrations as much as I was.
    Every time one of these choppers goes over my house in Noyac, stuff on the little shelf next to my bed where I write “Nature Notes” each week vibrates in syncopation with the rapidly turning rotors. I live on a busy street, Noyac Road, which is the number two gateway to the Hamptons and the motorcycles and passing trucks also kick up quite a fuss. I imagine that the blue jays, grackles, and robins that nest in the yard are mindful of the noises, from both below and above their roosts, but I don’t know how they react to them.
    I do know, however, that since the in-and-out helicopters have been active, certain birds have disappeared as breeders from the woodlands traversed by these fancy egg-beaters, and others have become quite scarce as breeders. For example, the breeding whippoorwill population has shrunk to near zero from a high of 25 pairs. I no longer hear hermit thrushes sing their pre-dusk songs, which some say are the most melodious of all native American birds. Ovenbirds and towhees, which used to be common on the forest floor, have become scarcer and scarcer with each passing year.
    Not too long ago, there was a time when only light, private planes flew over my house and the whippoorwills, hermit thrushes, ovenbirds, and towhees didn’t seem to mind. But on weekends during the height of the bird-breeding season in the new millennium, one can easily imagine what it is like to live in Afghanistan. Fortunately for me, my hearing is somewhat impaired. While these helicopters and jets are very, very loud to my ears, they must be screaming loud to those who are normal hearers and almost catastrophic to those with an acute sense of audition.
    Then I think of the piping plovers that pipe their plaintive notes along the shores. Certainly calamitous helicopters passing overhead were not part of their early evolution, nor were the annual summer fireworks shows, most of which take place on the very beaches where they nest. Acts of God such as thunder claps and lightning were part of their early evolution and while such phenomena along with heavy winds and heavy rains have interrupted breeding in piping plovers, ospreys, terns, and other local species, these were only episodic and were not nearly as frequent as helicopters.
    In fact, there has been very little scientific research into the impact of very loud noises on birds and other wild animals — especially on their breeding success — just as there has been very little research on the impact of the U.S. Navy’s underwater sound tests on dolphins, whales, fish, and other sea creatures. It seems that where weapon research and warfare are concerned, little heed is paid to the impact of bombs, missiles, mortar rounds, artillery, and mines on wild animals and the ecological communities they are a part of.
    Apart from the everyday natural hazards that wild fauna and flora have had to contend with daily since each one evolved many thousands of years ago, the added weight of all of the anthropomorphic insults is enough to push many over the edge into the abyss of extinction. The box turtle is an excellent example. Before motor vehicles and paved highways came along, the box turtle was almost an impenetrable fortress when it tucked in its neck and pulled shut its ventral armament. But cars and trucks came along to do what very few natural predators could, and the box turtle was no longer impenetrable.
    What we seem to be missing here, too, is that the North and South Forks are still quite rural. Most people who live here would prefer to hear nature’s sounds — birds singing, the rustle of the wind, or the lap of the waves on the shore — rather than the roar of helicopters, leaf-blowers, and unmuffled motor vehicles. You may tell me we can’t live in the past; I say we can and, in some respects, we may just have to.