Credit: Dave Keeling / Courtesy

Cal Poly professor Clinton Francis is leading a five-year study on the impacts of noise and light pollution on birds after receiving a nearly $900,000 grant from the Cal Poly Distinguished Scholarship Award. 

Francis, who is a professor in the biological sciences department and an honoree of the scholarship award, was awarded $893,079 to conduct a study on six bird species in New Mexico. 

The grant is part of a larger $2.6 million award by the National Science Foundation that will also go to researchers at Duke University and Washington State University. It will help Francis and his team of research technicians, graduates and undergraduate students answer new questions about birds in urban environments. 

“What really matters to people who make policies about noise pollution or any other impacts is whether those changes in behavior or changes in physiology, stress hormones, immune function, are actually linked to survival trajectories,” Francis said. 

The study’s field sites in New Mexico will be a familiar spot to Francis, who has been using the system for research since 2005. Francis has long been studying birds, even before he was hired as the department’s avian ecologist in 2013. He says he became interested in birds and pollution as a graduate student. 

“I worked on a project and realized that we really didn’t know anything about how animals cope with noise pollution and what all the different kinds of effects are if there were any at all,” he said. 

The questions surrounding the impact of human-caused noise and light pollution on birds are still up in the air. Francis said that noisy urban environments have been shown to decrease the diversity of species in an area, but have also allowed for some species’ reproduction rates to thrive because their main predators avoid the noise. 

“It’s kind of a mixed bag, right? It’s really changing the entire animal and plant community,” he said. 

Francis will need to spend most of his time at Cal Poly because of his responsibilities as a professor, but he will make a few visits per season to check in on the study and the student researchers. 

“It’s a really great educational opportunity for students to work in a system like this,” Francis said. “What we’re going to gain is a key missing piece of information.”