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Noise pollution is changing forests

A few years ago, researchers discovered that in areas polluted by human-made noise, a species of hummingbird seemed to increase in population, while a jay species seemed to decrease.

The same researchers now report that noisy areas have more flowers, but fewer trees. The findings appear in the current issue of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

It’s a domino effect, said Clinton D. Francis, an evolutionary ecologist at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham, N.C.

Pinyon pine trees rely on scrub jays to disperse their seeds, he said. And black-chinned hummingbirds, which pollinate flowers, seek out noisy areas to avoid the jays, which eat their eggs and even their nestlings.

The scientists set up motion-activated cameras at various sites in the Rattlesnake Canyon Wildlife Area, in northwestern New Mexico. Some sites were quiet; others were near natural gas wells, equipped with noisy compressors.

Dr. Francis’s team found that in noisy areas, many mice seek out pinyon seeds while scrub jays avoid them altogether.

Typically, a scrub jay can hide thousands of seeds in a single autumn to build up a store of food. They forget some of their hiding spots, and these seeds can then grow into seedlings. Mice, on the other hand, tend to eat all the seeds they find.

Dr. Francis says he worries about the loss of pinyon pines, which play a crucial role in the ecosystem of the Southwest.

An earlier study reported that about 1,000 species of fungi, insects, arthropods, mammals and birds depend on pinyons.