Melodies in metropolis: Are we losing Vancouver’s natural songs?

As cherry blossoms begin to bloom, Vancouverites can watch the seasons change, but they can hear them change too. Each morning, waking goldfinches greet the day with a gabble of bright notes and wheezes. Chickadees call to each other in soft, two-parted whistles. Usually perched on bushes, song sparrows serenade the world with soft trills and tender tweets. All around the city, people are greeted by the natural sound of Vancouver’s 250 bird species. But these beautiful soundscapes are in danger.

As cities develop, sounds from traffic and construction threaten to drown out nature. Metro Vancouver, whose population is expected to surpass 3 million later this year, is no exception. The chickadee next to my window will be a lot harder to hear with more cars roaring down the street. This change is not just aesthetic; loss of natural sounds poses real health risks to people living in the city.

A rise in human-generated noise has been shown to play a role in heart disease, hearing loss, poor sleep, and stress. The European Environmental Bureau recently identified noise pollution as “second only to air pollution as the environmental exposure most harmful to public health.”

At UBC’s CHANS lab, master’s student Clare Price is exploring how human-generated noise is impacting our ability to connect to nature. The work is rooted in acoustic ecology, the study of the ecological components of the soundscapes that constantly surround us.

Natural sounds are those like wind, animals, and rustling trees. Competing for the same decibels are anthropogenic, or human generated, noises. These are things like traffic, construction, and “anything that doesn't spring up from the earth naturally,” Price said.

All around the city, people are greeted by the natural sound of Vancouver’s 250 bird species.
All around the city, people are greeted by the natural sound of Vancouver’s 250 bird species. Tova Gaster / The Ubyssey

Her research surveys Vancouver’s residents by showing them recordings representing Vancouver soundscapes in the 1970s, early 2000s and modern day, asking them questions about how the recordings make them feel. Modern recordings have higher levels of anthropogenic noise which make[s cut] bird songs harder to hear.

“I'm curious about how our awareness of bird songs transform our perceptions of space as being good or bad, natural or unnatural," Price said.

The research hopes to map the accessibility of birdsong in Vancouver, identifying places where city sounds may make it hard to connect to nature. By identifying what factors contribute to a loss of natural sounds, the research can support public policies aimed at conserving important links to the natural world.

It also helps ensure that access to birdsong is open to everyone, not just those who can afford a home near the park.

“The story goes, as we might expect, that the wealthiest people in the wealthiest part of the town have the best parks with the most canopy cover with the least construction and disruption,” Price said. Mapping these recordings will let researchers see where unequal access to nature may exist.

Price’s research on natural soundscapes was inspired by the work of her advisor, UBC geography professor Karen Bakker. Bakker published a book titled The Sounds of Life in 2023, which explores how researchers study animal sounds outside of the human hearing range to give a voice to the natural conversations hidden around us.

Bakker, who was an unparalleled researcher, teacher and mentor in water policy research, passed away in August 2023.

“[Bakker] made it her job to go out there,” said Price. “Do the interviews, find the stories, write about it in as compelling and accessible a way as possible so that people can read about it and then start to connect.”

Her research aims to continue Bakker’s work: connecting to the natural world by highlighting the stories around us that are often drowned out by the noise.