U of Manitoba leads global effort to study effect of decreased human activity on wildlife

A University of Manitoba professor is leading a global effort to study the impact that the scaling back of human activity due to COVID-19 has had on wildlife.

Pandemic presents 'a great opportunity … to engage with the nature that's actually all around us': U of M prof

A University of Manitoba researcher is looking into whether the decrease in human activity and noise is benefiting bird populations, like that of this northern saw-whet owl. (Juan Pablo Medina)

A University of Manitoba professor is leading a global effort to study the impact scaling back human activity due to COVID-19 has had on wildlife.

Fewer cars may decrease traffic mortality and quieter streets may allow animals, such as birds, to better communicate and find mates.

However, decreased traffic also may lead to increased activity of species such as rats and domestic cats, which could harm native wildlife, said Nicola Koper, a professor of conservation biology at the U of M's Natural Resources Institute.

To make sense of what's actually happening, she's launched an initiative to co-ordinate biologists across the world. The C19-Wild Research Group brings together ecological teams to share knowledge, ideas and research progress.

"From a conservation perspective, it's really important to understand" how changes due to the pandemic are affecting the natural world, says Koper.

She has spent years researching the impacts of human development — especially noise from human activities — on wildlife, particularly birds.

When traffic volumes dropped due to COVID- 19 travel restrictions, Koper became fascinated with what the response would be from wildlife.

As people retreated indoors or went out alone for walks, in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus, reports began to surface about increased sightings and encounters with deer, foxes and coyotes in urban settings.

A mother fox and her kits living underneath the boardwalk at Woodbine Beach in Toronto swept through social media.

Nicola Koper is leading a team that also includes Environment and Climate Change Canada, Carleton University, the University of Alberta and Arizona State University. (University of Manitoba)

Cougars have been found wandering streets in Santiago, Chile, wild boars have ambled around Barcelona, Spain, and goats were spotted eating flowers and hedges in people's gardens in Llandudno, a seaside community in Wales.

In Winnipeg there were many anecdotal stories of an increased number of certain birds — robins, bald eagles, juncos — earlier in the spring, before COVID-19 restrictions began to be loosened. 

Those anecdotal tales might not mean the number of animals in cities and towns has increased, said Koper.

It's difficult to tell whether any increase in sightings is because people are out more and aren't as distracted by screens and other activities — so they're seeing more animals and birds — or whether wildlife behaviour has truly changed, she said.

Determining which is the case will help researchers understand the effect of traffic on wildlife, she said. "And secondly, we might detect some really important trends that help us understand the status of a certain species."

That's where her new research group comes in.

"We're still welcoming new teams to join us, so we can bring together resources and ideas and build teams that will help us understand impacts of travel restrictions on wildlife," Koper said.

Birds have to fight against human noise in order to communicate. If that noise is less, they may be more successful at communicating and attracting mates, and consequently increase their numbers, says U of M's Nicola Koper. (Jessica Sanchez-Jasso)

Her particular research group is examining the impacts on bird communities across Canada and the U.S., specifically in cities and nearby areas. Koper hopes some initial results will be available over the next couple of months.

Her team will review data gathered during the past three years on eBird — an international citizen-science program in which people all over the world submit observations about bird species — and compare it to data gathered in 2020.

"That's going to let us compare how the communities of birds have changed in these different cities over time," she said.

Birds have to fight against human noise in order to communicate. If that noise diminishes, they may be more successful at communicating and attracting mates, and consequently increase their numbers, Koper said.

Several bald eagles were seen flying around a thawing river south of Morris, Man., earlier this spring. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

But the potential downside of decreased traffic is there might be more activity from mammals that eat birds.

"For example, we might get native predators like foxes and coyotes moving across the roadways more easily [and into areas where they hadn't often gone]. Then they might actually end up having negative impacts on birds and other wildlife," Koper said.

The U of M-led team is working with Environment and Climate Change Canada, Carleton University, the University of Alberta and Arizona State University.

A team from the University of Washington, meanwhile, will examine impacts of reduced pollutants on bird populations; Florida Gulf Coast University will look at how decreased human activity impacts wildlife movements; and researchers at Memorial University are partnering with others to investigate changes to aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.

Like Koper's group, they are all looking into whether anecdotal observations actually reflect measurable change.

Nicola Koper says it's fantastic how much people are noticing the nature and wildlife around them. (University of Manitoba)

"I've had people tell me about a Swainson's hawk nest that they were really surprised to find in town. We looked into some of the previous records and found other records of the same thing," Koper said.

"That's why it's so important to actually do scientific research — to determine whether those are just unusual observations that will occasionally happen, or whether they're actually unusual observations that are occurring because of this really exceptional human behaviour that has changed."

Either way, though, the focus on nature is a win, Koper said.

"It's fantastic how much people are noticing the nature and wildlife around them," she said.

"It's really a great opportunity for all of us to engage with the nature that's actually all around us that we often don't notice."


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.


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