New study shows traffic noise can affect brain and learning ability in birds

An international study led by researchers at Western University’s Advanced Facility for Avian Research (AFAR) has shown that birds living in congested cities are greatly affected by persistent traffic noise and that their brains and learning ability are seriously damaged.

The project was led by Scott MacDougall-Shackleton, the director of AFAR – a world-class research facility based at Western specializing in interdisciplinary studies of bird physiology, neurobiology and behaviour.

The findings were recently published in the scientific journal, PeerJ.

“Humans create a lot of noise and this can prove to be a major problem for species that rely heavily on acoustic communication – like birds,” says Dominique Potvin, lead author of the study and a former Western postdoctoral researcher. “Young songbirds, for instance, need to learn breeding songs from more mature birds, acting as tutors, so if noise is impeding or interrupting this process, it could have implications for populations that occur near human habitation.”

The researchers conducted an experiment, allowing zebra finches to breed while being exposed to traffic noise, pink noise or no noise. Pink noise is a random signal, filtered to have equal energy per octave.

MacDougall-Shackleton, who also serves as Department Chair for Western’s Department of Psychology with a specialization in Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience, and Potvin found that juvenile finches exposed to noise copied their tutor’s syllables accurately, but song syntax was severely affected.

“This is like a human learning vocabulary properly without being able to grasp grammar,” says Potvin, who is continuing her research at the Australian National University. “This study demonstrates that noise can impact animals at the neuroanatomical level and has possibly severe consequences for the behaviour of individuals and the health of populations.”

Additionally, the study showed that while noise did not appear to elevate stress hormone levels in birds, it did impact the juvenile birds’ brains. Most importantly, two brain regions crucial to song learning and production (HVC and Area X) were underdeveloped in birds exposed to moderate or high levels of traffic noise.

MEDIA CONTACT: Jeff Renaud, Senior Media Relations Officer, 519-661-2111, ext. 85165,, @jeffrenaud99

Western University delivers an academic experience second to none. Since 1878, The Western Experience has combined academic excellence with life-long opportunities for intellectual, social and cultural growth in order to better serve our communities. Our research excellence expands knowledge and drives discovery with real-world application. Western attracts individuals with a broad worldview, seeking to study, influence and lead in the international community.

Downloadable Media