Actions taken against the COVID-19 pandemic have dramatically affected many aspects of human activity, giving us a unique opportunity to study how wildlife responds to the human-induced rapid environmental changes. The wearing of face masks, widely adopted to prevent pathogen transmission, represents a novel element in many parts of the world where wearing a face mask was rare before the COVID-19 outbreak. During September 2020-March 2021, we conducted large-scale multi-species field experiments to evaluate whether face mask-use in public places elicits a behavioural response in birds by comparing their escape and alert responses when approached by a researcher with or without a face mask in four European countries (Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary, and Poland) and Israel. We also tested whether these patterns differed between urban and rural sites. We employed Bayesian generalized linear mixed models (with phylogeny and site as random factors) controlling for a suite of covariates and found no association between the face mask-wear and flight initiation distance, alert distance, and fly-away distance, respectively, neither in urban nor in rural birds. However, we found that all three distances were strongly and consistently associated with habitat type and starting distance, with birds showing earlier escape and alert behaviour and longer distances fled when approached in rural than in urban habitats and from longer initial distances. Our results indicate that wearing face masks did not trigger observable changes in antipredator behaviour across the Western Palearctic birds, and our data did not support the role of habituation in explaining this pattern.
- Ekologia, evoluutiobiologia