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White-crowned sparrow. Photo: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

When San Francisco hushed during coronavirus shutdowns earlier this year, a common songbird responded by changing its tune.

Why it matters: Earlier work found birds alter their songs to compensate for urban noise. This study suggests they are "adaptable enough to shift back if noise pollution is removed," says Ken Otter, an ornithologist at the University of Northern British Columbia who wasn't involved in the study.

  • Alleviating noise pollution — through the adoption of electric vehicles or urban planning — could affect breeding and "benefit wildlife that rely on acoustic communication," says Otter.

During pandemic shutdowns, the background noise in urban areas near San Francisco was on par with rural areas and with that of the city in the 1950s, Elizabeth Derryberry of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and her colleagues report today in the journal Science.

  • That created "a proverbial silent spring" — and a rare opportunity to study the songbird's response to less noise pollution.

What they did: The researchers compared recordings of different dialects of male white-crowned sparrows, Zonotrichia leucophrys, in urban and rural areas near San Francisco from spring 2015 and 2016 with those from April and May 2020.

  • During the quiet period, the urban sparrows sang more softly and the distance the song traveled more than doubled.
  • They also began to sing lower notes, what females perceive as a more challenging song that therefore may increase the male's sex appeal.

Last note: The signal-to-noise ratio of the sparrow song also doubled, which means people could hear four times more birds and may explain why people reported bird songs being louder during the shutdown, the researchers write.

Go deeper

34 mins ago - World

Sudan's military places civilian prime minister under house arrest

Sudanese Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok during a 2020 news conference in Khartoum, Sudan. Photo: Mahmoud Hjaj/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Sudan's civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok was put under house arrest and several other ministers were also detained Monday in what appears to be a military coup in the country, per local reports.

Why it matters: The arrests of the civilian faction in the Sudanese government came a day after U.S. envoy Jeffrey Feltman met with the head of the military faction of the Sudanese government General Abdul Fattah al-Burhan and warned him against staging a coup.

"Atmospheric river" swings Northern California from drought to flood

Satellite view of the bomb cyclone swirling off the coast of the Pacific Northwest and the atmospheric river affecting California on Oct. 24. Photo: CIRA/RAMMB

A series of powerful "atmospheric river" storms are delivering historic amounts of rainfall across parts of drought-stricken California and the Pacific Northwest — triggering widespread power outages and flooding.

Why it matters: The strong atmospheric river, packing large amounts of moisture, is causing Northern California to whiplash from drought to flood.

Updated 3 hours ago - World

Saudi dissident claims MBS said he could get "poison ring" to kill king

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attending the Saudi Green Initiative Forum, via video link, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on Saturday. Photo: Royal Court of Saudi Arabia/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A former senior Saudi intelligence official who worked with the U.S. on counterterrorism alleged to "60 Minutes" in an interview broadcast Sunday that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman discussed in 2014 killing the kingdom's then-monarch.

Why it matters: The claim by the exiled Saad al-Jabri, whom Saudi authorities describe as "a discredited former government official," that the crown prince, known as "MBS," allegedly said he could obtain a "ring from Russia" to carry out the attack, is one of several serious but unproven allegations he made on the CBS show.