Canaries in the Global Coalmine: Birdsong in a Changing Climate

How increasing CO2 in the atmosphere will affect the songs of birds.

Image
Liam Young

The sounds of birds are at once a highlight and an ever-changing product of the city. There's a vast field of science documenting how urban areas and urbanization affect animal species, especially birds. Their songs are frequently studied because they can change dramatically in accordance with increased urbanization, reduced habitat, and even the evolving soundscape of the city.

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The songs of birds are changing, but they're also disappearing. Just like the literal canaries in the coalmine, birds act as indicators of changes in the atmosphere by altering – and eventually silencing – their songs.

In a new exhibition from architect and educator Liam Young at the Mediamatic Fabriek in Amsterdam, canaries are used to show how rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are likely to affect birdsong. In "Singing Sentinels: Canaries in a Post-Carbon Coal Mine," a roomful of canaries is subjected (safely, it's claimed) to gradually increasing concentrations of CO2 in the air – from today's 390 parts per million to the 1,000 ppm expected by 2100. As this video, "Silent Spring: A Climate Change Acceleration," shows, the change in their song is incredible.

The exhibition is on display until July 1.

Image credit: Liam Young

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.