Effects of helicopter noise on Mexican spotted owls

David K. Delaney, Teryl G. Grubb, Paul Beier, Larry L. Pater, M. Hildegard Reiser

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

114 Scopus citations


Military helicopter training over the Lincoln National Forest (LNF) in southcentral New Mexico has been severely limited to protect nesting Mexican spotted owls (Strix occidentalis lucida). To evaluate nesting and nonnesting spotted owl responses to helicopter noise, we measured flush frequency, flush distance, alert behavior, response duration, prey delivery rates, female trips from the nest, and nest attentiveness during manipulated and nonmanipulated periods, 1995-96. Chain saws were included in our manipulations to increase experimental options and to facilitate comparative results. We analyzed stimulus events by measuring noise levels as unweighted one-third-octave band levels, applying frequency weighting to the resultant spectra, and calculating the sound exposure level for total sound energy (SEL) and the 0.5-sec equivalent maximum energy level (LEQ(max 0.5-sec)) for helicopters, and the 10-see equivalent average energy level (LEQ(avg, 10-sec)) for chain saws. An owl-weighting (dBO) curve was estimated to emphasize the middle frequency range where strigiform owls have the highest hearing sensitivity. Manipulated and nonmanipulated nest sites did not differ in reproductive success (P = 0.59) or the number of young fledged (P = 0.12). As stimulus distance decreased, spotted owl flush frequency increased, regardless of stimulus type or season. We recorded no spotted owl flushes when noise stimuli were >105 m away. Spotted owls returned to predisturbance behavior within 10-15 min after a stimulus event. All adult flushes during the nesting season occurred after juveniles had left the nest. Spotted owl flush rates in response to helicopters did not differ between nonnesting (13.3%) and nesting seasons (13.6%; P = 0.34). Spotted owls did not flush when the SEL noise level for helicopters was ≤102 dBO (92 dBA) and the LEQ level for chain saws was ≤59 dBO (46 dBA). Chain saws were more disturbing to spotted owls than helicopter flights at comparable distances. Our data indicate a 105-m buffer zone for helicopter overflights on the LNF would minimize spotted owl flush response and any potential effects on nesting activity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)60-76
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Wildlife Management
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1999


  • Chain saws
  • Disturbance
  • Flush response
  • Helicopters
  • Mexican spotted owls
  • Noise
  • Response thresholds
  • Sound measurements
  • Strix occidentalis lucida

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation


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