- Reviewing EditorChima NwaoguUniversity of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa
- Senior EditorDetlef WeigelMax Planck Institute for Biology Tübingen, Tübingen, Germany
Reviewer #1 (Public Review):
This study is one of several around the world to investigate how urban wildlife responded to changes in human activity during the lockdowns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike several other studies on the topic that used observational data from citizen science programs, this project relied on passive acoustic monitoring to record bird vocalizations during and after stringent lockdown periods in an urban environment. The authors focused on three species that differ in their level of adaptation to human presence, providing an ecologically relevant comparison that highlights the importance of micro-habitats for species living in close proximity to humans.
The element that sets this study apart from most others examining avian responses to COVID-19 lockdowns is the use of passive acoustic monitoring. As the authors describe, this method offers several advantages over other methods (though, it does come with some limitations on what questions can be addressed). Perhaps the most relevant advantage is that it offers the ability to concurrently measure anthropogenic noise in the environment, which is one of the most likely mechanisms for effects on wildlife from changes to human activity. These authors were, therefore, able to show local-scale differences in bird responses to human activity measured at the same scale. To my knowledge, only one other study (Derryberry et al. Science. 2020) has used recordings of vocalizations to examine the influence of COVID-19 lockdowns on a bird species.
It was encouraging to see a study that focused on the local-scale impacts of lockdowns, with methods that could investigate effects within micro-habitats. Logistics prevented many other projects from operating at such fine scales, making the results from this study particularly useful for the examination of rapid changes in bird behavior. This does mean that comparisons between this study and others examining the effects of COVID-19 lockdowns on birds should be done with care, as the effects described here may have been the result of different processes, operating at different spatial and temporal scales. However, that also means this study fills an important gap in our knowledge of how wildlife reacts to human activity in urban spaces.
One drawback of the approach is that the acoustic sampling only occurred during the pandemic: samples were taken during several lockdown periods in the early spring (March through early May) of 2020 and then for a period of 10 days after the end of the final lockdown period in late May of 2020. Unfortunately, this means that the interpretation of the effect of lockdowns could have been affected by any shifts in the birds' vocal behavior that resulted from unmodeled environmental factors or normal seasonal phenology during that three-month period. However, the authors chose focal species that would be less prone to seasonal changes in vocal behavior and their approach did account for several factors to minimize any such effects.
Reviewer #2 (Public Review):
In this study, the authors tried to gauge the effect of human activity on three species, (1) the Hooded grow, an urban exploiter, (2) the Rose ring parakeet, an invasive, alien species that has adapted to exploit human resources, and (3) the Graceful prinia, an urban adapter, which is relatively shy of humans. A goal of the study was to increase awareness of the importance of urban parks.
Strengths of the study include the fact that it was conducted at 17 different sites, including parks, roads and residential areas, and included three species with different habitat preferences. Each species produced relatively loud and repeatable vocalizations. To avoid the effect of seasonal changes, sounds were sampled within a 10 day period of the lockdown as well as post-lockdown. The analysis included a comparison of the number of sound files, binary values indicating emission of a common syllable, and also the total number of syllables emitted as a measurement of bird activity. Ambient temperatures and sound levels of human activity were also recorded. All of these factors speak to the comprehensive approach and analysis adopted in this study. The results are based on a rigorous statistical analysis, ruling out the effects of various extraneous parameters.
Most significant changes may occur near the ambient noise levels and this could lead to a different conclusion, but the authors authors acknowledge this possibility and clarify that they only analyzed vocalizations with high signal-to-noise signals to avoid ambiguity. In the revised version, they also replaced the previous ambient noise parameter with an estimate of ambient noise under 1kHz, assuming that it reflects most anthropogenic noise (not restricted to human speech). This seems reasonable and this new model gave very similar results to the previous one.
In interpreting the data, the authors mention the effect of human activity on bird vocalizations in the context of inter-species predator-prey interactions; however, the presence of humans could also modify intraspecies interactions by acting as triggers for communication of warning and alarm, and/or food calls (as may sometimes be the case) to conspecifics. The behavioral significance of the syllables used to monitor animal activity could be informative in this context; however, the authors acknowledge this possibility in the Discussion. Most importantly, the authors acknowledge the possibility of the above-noted bias, and the potential of a transient nature of the observed effects.
In general, the authors achieved their aim of illustrating the complexity of the affect of human activity on animal behavior notwithstanding the caveats noted above. Their study also makes it clear that estimating such affects is not simple given the dynamics of animal behavior. For example, seasonality, temperature changes, animal migration and movement, as well as interspecies interactions, such as those related to predator-prey behavior, and inter/intra-species competition in other respects can all play into site-specific changes in the vocal activity of a particular species.