May 18, 2021

PaRx People: Meet Dr. Rachel Buxton

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Dr. Rachel Buxton, PhD, is a conservation scientist at Carleton University whose research focuses on the impact of noise pollution and the benefits of natural sound, and the importance of the acoustic environment for the health of wildlife and humans. Drawing from her experiences as a research scientist, mother, teacher and lifelong learner, she works with groups of practitioners, decision-makers, Indigenous peoples and stakeholders to mobilize effective conservation solutions.

PaRx sat down with Dr. Buxton to learn more about how she fell in love with birds and soundscapes, the intersection between nature conservation and human health, and how health-care professionals can apply her ground-breaking research to their practices.

Can you tell us about your early experiences and education, and how they led to your career today?

I have always been interested in the natural world. I grew up in North Vancouver so I spent a lot of time at Lynn Canyon and Ambleside Beach. I’ve always been the person digging in the mud and trying to catch little critters. I was really good at biology and science so I thought a natural choice would be medicine. But I don’t think I really understood you could have a career in biology until going to college and exploring different paths.

Dr. Buxton at the beach as a child. Photo supplied.

I did my undergrad degree at the University of Victoria, where I did a semester at Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre—and it totally changed the trajectory of my life. I was focused on med school, and then I got to go out on the ocean and see seabirds, and I fell in love with birds.

I completed a major in zoology and marine biology, and that took me to my Masters at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s. I did my studies in the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. My first experience was getting on a plane, flying five hours out into the middle of the ocean and then getting on a boat for two days to Buldir Island. Buldir is one of the most diverse and large seabird colonies in the northern hemisphere, with 21 species of nesting seabirds. Over 3.5 million seabirds nest on this little island.

Many of these seabirds are nocturnal, and they spend the majority of their life on the ocean and come back to land to breed, find a mate and raise chicks. And I just remember my first night on the island, going out in the pitch dark. You turn your head lamp on and the experience is indescribable. It’s absolutely deafening because these millions of birds are finding their way to their nests, or burrows, and one of the only ways they have to navigate is sound. It’s deafening. There are birds flying everywhere and it’s absolute chaos. Even talking about it now I get goosebumps!

Dr. Buxton with a Leach’s Storm-Petrel in Alaska. Photo supplied.

That was my first experience where the power of sound was made really clear to me, not only how it made me feel, but how important it was to help these birds get back to their nests and find their chicks. It was a life-altering experience for many reasons—spending two months on an uninhabited island is pretty magical and changes who you are—but that full acoustic experience just really made me understand the importance of sound.

And so I actually did my PhD in New Zealand because I also fell in love with seabirds; New Zealand is the seabird capital of the world. I was lucky enough to be there for four years and look at seabird recovery on islands and bicultural island restoration.

Then I came back to the United States and did my first postdoc with Colorado State University and the US Parks Service, with their Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division. We were looking at the distribution and impact of noise pollution in parks and protected areas across the US. That really solidified my appreciation for sound and the damage human-caused sounds are doing to the acoustic environment. I spent four years there studying the negative consequences of noise pollution for wildlife and people, and that led me to think about, What’s the opposite of that? When we’re going into natural spaces and experiencing quiet and natural sounds, what kind of impacts are those having on humans? So that’s my story.

You recently published a study about the health benefits of natural sounds in national parks. Tell us more about it.

Our study is a systematic review of the growing body of research looking at the effects of natural sound on health outcomes.

The first part of our paper was a meta-analysis of a subset of the 36 different studies we found, papers from Sweden to North America to Iran—many different countries with lots of different questions and types of natural sounds. We wanted to put those together in a robust way.

Across the board we found that the health outcomes from listening to natural sounds are significant. Groups of people saw an increase in health benefits of over 180 percent—pretty significant, dramatic effects. There were also large decreases in stress and annoyance of about 30 per cent.

But what was really the most remarkable was the range of health benefits these studies covered, everything from improving your mood to your cognitive abilities and ability to focus, to decreasing your pain. Significant reductions in pain were reported by patients during painful bone marrow surgery in one study.

Another really neat result was that different sounds tended to have different types of health benefits. Water sounds, for example, were beneficial for positive affective outcomes like feelings of tranquility and your preference for those environments, whereas bird sounds tended to have the greatest benefits for reducing stress.

Spectrograms of some nocturnal burrow-nesting seabird calls. Graphic supplied.

The second component of the study was to look at the distribution of these health-benefitting natural sounds in national parks across the U.S., in relation to anthropogenic, or human-caused sounds. We looked at which parks had really high levels of natural sounds, and really low levels of human-caused sounds. We had this enormous database of recordings to choose from because the National Park Service has been recording these sounds for many, many years, largely for parks to manage noise pollution. Part of their mandate is to maintain enjoyment for future generations, and part of that is maintaining acoustic environments—it’s one of the only park systems in the world that has that mandate. So they monitor noise pollution levels within parks and take action to reduce it.

Another neat program is that they have students listen to a subset of these recordings, and code what sounds they hear (was it a bird or a plane?) so we can get an idea of the different types of sounds in them. We found that 11 percent of the recording sites had really great listening opportunities, with a high abundance of natural sounds and low abundance of noise.

The results weren’t terribly surprising; in urban areas you’re pretty much guaranteed to be inundated with noise. Most of the really great listening opportunities were in the Pacific Northwest or Alaska, and a few of them were within about 100 km of the city.

But one of the more promising results from the lit review was that groups that listened to natural sounds paired with human-caused sounds like road traffic still experienced better health outcomes than groups that just listened to road traffic. So there is some evidence that even if you’re in a city and have no choice but to be inundated with noise, you’re still getting some of those health benefits from hearing natural sounds.

They have a place near City Hall in Ottawa where they play natural sounds; they play birdsong. In Colorado they play the sounds of rain and birdsong near every bus stop to calm people down. I don’t know if it’s based on evidence or more of an art installation. It’s increasingly being done.

Dr. Buxton placing a song meter (acoustic recorder) and camera trap in the Piceance Basin, Colorado. Photo supplied.
Dr. Buxton bird watching with her son on the Rideau River, Ottawa. Photo supplied.

What’s your favourite bird, and why?

I’m afraid most people won’t have heard of it! These are from my Aleutian Islands days; it’s hard to pick just one so I’ll pick two.

There’s a bird called a Crested Auklet that nests in these really big colonies. They’re really social, and they have this pheromone that they use to flirt with each other—you’ll see them sniffing each other’s necks and getting cozy. But the pheromone smells like tangerines! So you’ll approach a colony, or a flock of them will fly by the boat, and they’ll smell like oranges.

I also spent a lot of time in my career watching petrels and shearwaters—they fly for hundreds of kilometres across the ocean looking for food and returning to their nests. Watching them glide along the ocean—there’s nothing like it. I do love grey-faced petrels. They have a special place in my heart because I studied them for four years in New Zealand.

If you want a bird that makes us think about sound, there’s really nothing like the Common Loon. Nothing makes you think more of an Ontario summer than the call of a loon. It’s so haunting, falling asleep by the lakeside and hearing it call.

Crested and Least Auklets in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska. Photo by Rachel Buxton.

A lot of us are spending more time indoors during the pandemic. How can we apply your research to improve our health when we’re inside?

This one’s tricky because I am a conservation biologist, so it’s always my goal and intention to get people outside and connecting with nature. But I do realize some of us are on stay-at-home orders and we can’t necessarily do that.

If it’s absolutely not an option to go outside, most of the studies we looked at were exactly what I’m going to describe, with patients or participants listening to natural sounds on headphones. So instead of listening to music while you’re working, try listening to birdsong. Before you go to bed at night, flick on some natural sounds to fall asleep to—it’s good for you (laughs).

We’re also interested in differences between particular species of birds. Is a gull crying at six in the morning outside your window not as good as pretty songbirds twittering from the trees? People here in Ottawa get mad at the geese. They’re honking, but I think it’s magical.

How might health-care professionals incorporate your findings into their practice?

As far as a park prescription program goes, if it’s possible to direct your patients, encourage them to seek out quiet places with less human-caused noise like traffic noise, or just practise intentional listening. That’s something that’s relevant to both a doctor and a resource manager in a park. Focus on what kind of natural sounds you’re hearing. Really take a minute to try to focus on them, hone in on them. Is there a river rushing by? And focus on the birds singing in the trees.

From a doctor’s perspective, not only will that help relax you even more, but from a conservation perspective, it really grows your appreciation for those sounds. The more you listen, the more you realize, Oh wow, these are really beautiful sounds, and as people’s appreciation grows their desire to protect those natural sounds increases.

There are more and more programs that physicians might be interested in, like sound-walks, where the aim of the exercise is to listen. It’s kind of like a nature walk where someone might point out plants or other visual features, but you’re intentionally focusing on sounds instead.

Dr. Buxton on a beach walk with her son. Photo supplied.

What’s your next project, and what do you hope to achieve overall with your work?

My interest lies at the connection between our health and the natural environment because we’re facing a mental health crisis and also a biodiversity crisis. And the fact that we could be tackling those two things together is really remarkable. What’s the link between mental health and biodiversity of life on Earth? And what’s the general link between health and wellbeing and ecosystem health and wellbeing? We have a project right now with Carleton University and colleagues at the Public Health Agency of Canada looking at the link between mental health and the number of bird species in Canadian cities.

For me, the bottom line is really raising people’s awareness about the acoustic or sound environment. Humans—we’re visual creatures. When we think about nature we might think about a beautiful vista, like the oceans or the lakes in Ontario, but a key part of our experience in nature is the sound environment. So hearing that loon on the lake, listening to the sound of whales breaching—these are really key parts of being in and experiencing nature.

And so I’d just encourage people to listen to and appreciate these natural sounds. We’re losing them really quickly without paying attention. A study just came out showing we’ve lost three billion birds since the 1970s. Again, these sounds are beautiful, they’re good for our health, and they deserve our protection.

Where are you spending time outdoors these days?

I live in Ottawa so I’m an urban dweller, but I live right next to the Rideau River. I’m really lucky. My family and I take lots of walks along the river, and with spring migration just around the corner we’ll probably be spending a lot more time at Mud Lake. It’s an Important Bird Area, and a great place to get a peek at migrants coming through from Central and South America before they travel right up to the boreal forest in northern Canada.

A Blackburnian warbler. Photo by Patrice Bouchard on Unsplash.

Many different species, including a lot of warblers, are migrating through. Last week my son actually saw a Blackburnian warbler, which was really exciting because it’s not a common bird. They don’t breed here so it’s a fairly unusual sighting. He’s two and a half, and there are all these people trying to spot it or get a picture of it, and here’s my little toddler who just kind of looks up and says, Hey, there’s a rare bird everyone wants to see. It just landed on a tree.

What’s your top tip for people who want to connect to nature more in their everyday lives?

That’s a great question. The first step is just getting outside—that’s a basic one. But I think we often need to be told; I say it’s an easy one but I‘m super guilty of spending an entire day at my laptop. I think there’s this mentality that you really have to be present at your laptop at all times to be productive. And yet this paper we just published, and a large body of research, show that if you get outside for half an hour on your lunch break you’re going to be more productive when you come back to your desk.

Most importantly, our relationship with nature is reciprocal. Nature protects our health, so we need to protect nature. It’s not a one-way street. It needs to work both ways. Get outside and experience the benefits every day, and try to do something for nature in return.

Dr. Buxton hiking with her family in Ontario. Photo supplied.

For more on Dr. Buxton’s research, check out her recent interview on CBC’s Quirks and Quarks here.

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