Chemicals In The Environment Could Be Changing Birds’ Voices

By Philip Ross on September 19, 2013 9:17 PM EDT

chickadee
Scientists think PCBs in the soil have contaminated bird populations in New York's Hudson River Valley, and may be responsible for the songbirds' screwy vocals. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Something is causing birds in New York to sing a different tune. Scientists think it could be chemicals in the soil that are changing the way the birds' voices sound.

Researchers at Cornell University's Laboratory of Ornithology studied songbirds in the Hudson River Valley just north of New York City. They found that the birds weren't singing on pitch, and exhibited inconsistencies in their songs that could be linked to contaminants in the sediment.  

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According to Science Daily, the researchers discovered that song sparrows and chickadees had higher total blood PCBs, a chemical once widely used as a coolant and dielectric, in regions where PCBs were historically used. They found that 41 of the 209 variations of PCB were responsible for the birds' having out-of-whack vocal chords.

Mother birds eat worms and other insects infected with the chemical, and then pass that chemical onto their offspring as well.

Their study, titled "The Effect of Polychlorinated Biphenyls on the Song of Two Passerine Species," and published in the online journal Plos One, highlights the need to pervasive nature of persistent organic pollutants. 

"Dr. DeLeon's work would have brought a smile to the face of Rachel Carson," said William Wise, Interim Director of New York Sea Grant. "This type of dedicated field research can tease out the impact of organic contaminants in the environment on creatures that are known to all of us. Sara and colleagues are drawing the connections between contaminant, animal behavior and, ultimately, a population's health."

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