Using Bioacoustics to Examine the Effects of Industrial Disturbance on Owls and their Prey

  • Author / Creator
    Shonfield, Julia
  • Anthropogenic disturbance is known to have negative population consequences and alter animal behaviour, and a growing body of research on the effects of anthropogenic noise is finding similar negative impacts on wildlife. Noise in natural environments can mask important acoustic signals used for animal communication. Owls use vocal communication to attract mates and defend territories, and rely on acoustic cues to locate their prey. Industrial noise has been shown to negatively affect owl hunting success and reduce foraging efficiency by affecting their ability to detect prey, but whether this results in reduced habitat suitability for owls in areas near industrial noise sources is largely unknown. It is also not known if the abundance of small mammals, the primary prey of owls, is affected by industrial noise. Communication between small mammals is unlikely to be directly affected by noise because they primarily communicate using olfactory rather than vocal signals, but small mammals could be indirectly affected through altered predation dynamics. I sought to determine if owls avoid the areas surrounding chronic industrial noise sources, if prey availability is affected by chronic industrial noise, and the relative importance of noise compared to other types of disturbance resulting from industrial development on owl habitat use. I used autonomous recording units and automated recognizers to survey for owls and scan recordings for owl vocalizations, to assess the impacts of disturbance from industrial development on owls in northeastern Alberta, a region that has seen increased development in the oil and gas industries in recent years. I found that barred owls (Strix varia), great horned owls (Bubo virginianus), and boreal owls (Aegolius funereus) were equally likely to occupy noisy sites compared to sites with no noise, indicating that site-level occupancy (representing a home range scale) was unaffected by the presence of noise sources on the landscape. I found no difference in abundance or activity of red-backed voles (Myodes gapperi) and deer mice (Peromyscus maniculatus), indicating that these important prey species are not strongly affected by noise. Finally, I found each owl species responded differently to the different disturbance types. Barred owls were less likely to be present in areas with greater proportions of human footprint and roads, whereas great horned owls were more tolerant to disturbance and were more likely to be present in areas with greater proportions of soft linear features (e.g. seismic lines, pipelines), though they did avoid areas with large industrial facilities. Boreal owl presence was more strongly affected by forest composition than disturbance; they prefer more coniferous forests, and it was less clear if they were sensitive or relatively tolerant to disturbance. Assessing the relative impacts of multiple types of disturbance and how the accumulation of disturbances can impact wildlife is important in understanding species declines and can help focus conservation efforts. My thesis contributes to research on the impacts of anthropogenic disturbance and suggests the effect of noise on barred owls, great horned owls, and boreal owls is minimal at the spatial scales I looked at. Similarly, the effect of noise on abundance and activity of red-backed voles and deer mice was weak, suggesting similar prey availability for owls. For the owl species I studied, forest composition and other types of disturbance on the landscape are more likely to influence their habitat use.

  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Graduation date
    Fall 2018
  • Type of Item
  • Degree
    Doctor of Philosophy
  • DOI
  • License
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