60-Second Science

Artificial Lighting Changing Songbird Lifestyles

Artificial lighting is making songbirds start singing earlier in the day, with possible consequences for breeding. Cynthia Graber reports

Songbirds sing to entice mates, and the timing of those songs is often regulated by sunlight. But that timing is getting thrown off—by streetlamps. That’s according to research published in the journal Current Biology. [Bart Kempenaers et al,]

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany studied five common forest-breeding songbirds. Males in four species started singing significantly earlier in the morning if they lived near streetlights than did their deep forest-dwelling kin. And for one species studied, males were more successful at attracting extra-pair mates. Those are females other than the male’s primary nest-mate with whom they sire offspring.

Sounds great, right? Well, the researchers say, not so fast. They note that the males may be weaker, because they get less sleep due to the lights. And so females who used to take early singing as a sign of virility may be attracted to weaker males who simply can’t sleep because the lights are on. The early singing may also put the males at greater risk of predation.

The researchers say we don’t understand the long-term effects. But they add a hopeful note—companies are developing new streetlamps with reduced light pollution, which could also help songbirds get their z’s.

—Cynthia Graber

[The above text is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

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