Traffic Noise Exposure Depresses Plasma Corticosterone and Delays Offspring Growth in Breeding Zebra Finches

Conserv Physiol. 2019 Oct 11;7(1):coz056. doi: 10.1093/conphys/coz056. eCollection 2019.


The impact of human activity on the acoustic environment is overwhelming, with anthropogenic noise reaching even remote areas of the planet. The World Health Organization has identified noise pollution as one of the leading environmental health risks in humans, and it has been linked to a myriad of short- and long-term health effects in exposed individuals. However, less is known about the health effects of anthropogenic noise exposure on animals. We investigated long- and short-term effects of traffic noise on zebra finches breeding in small communal aviaries, using a repeated measures design. Birds bred in both noise and no-noise conditions, and we measured baseline plasma glucocorticoid levels before, during and after breeding. In addition, we assayed immune function, measured reproductive success and offspring growth and compared rates of extra-pair paternity of breeding adults. Breeding birds had significantly lower baseline plasma corticosterone levels when exposed to traffic noise than when they were not exposed to noise playback. In addition, the nestlings reared during noise exposure were lighter than nestlings of the same parents when breeding in control conditions. Our results suggest that traffic noise poses a more severe hurdle to birds at more vulnerable stages of their life history, such as during reproductive events and ontogeny. While chronic exposure to traffic noise in our birds did not, by itself, prove to be a sufficient stressor to cause acute effects on health or reproductive success in exposed individuals, it did result in disruptions to normal glucocorticoid profiles and delayed offspring growth. However, animals living in urban habitats are exposed to a multitude of anthropogenic disturbances, and it is likely that even species that appear to be thriving in noisy environments may suffer cumulative effects of these multiple disturbances that may together impact their fitness in urban environments.

Keywords: Anthropogenic noise; glucocorticoids; reproductive fitness; songbird; stress; urbanization.