The iconic clanking of bells worn by bovine has been a part of idyllic countryside soundscapes for centuries, helping herdsman keep better track of their cattle grazing in the fields — but as it turns out, unlike Christopher Walken's character in that famous Saturday Night Live sketch, cows would probably prefer a bit less cowbell.
According to a new study out of Switzerland, researchers from Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich found that the sounds produced by those heavy, metal bells wasn't so pleasing to the animals who are forced to wear them. The team found that the ringing heard by cows laden with cowbells reached as high as 113 decibels, about as loud as a jackhammer.
"If someone had an eight-hour work day in 100-decibel noise, it is bad for his health," says acoustics expert, Beat Hohman, to newspaper Schweiz am Sonntag. "In humans we would expect a hearing impairment to develop after being exposed to this high noise for a certain length of time."
Researchers note that cattle's hearing is much more sensitive than humans, making the deafening sound of metal on metal exactly that; they suspect that thousands of cows have lost their hearing because it.
Researchers strapped bells to 100 cows on farms in Switzerland, some of which made a sound, and others that did not. After observing the animals, the team found that the cows with ringing bells actually ate for shorter amounts of time and chewed their cud far less than those allowed to graze in relative silence.
But more than just being annoying, some believe the bells are actually cruel.
Swiss news site TheLocal.ch reports that the study supports the claims of animal welfare activists who have long been anti-cowbell.
"We didn't need long university research to tell us that the bells are not beneficial to cows," says Lolita Morena, who suggests the bells be banned. "Farmers will just have to spend a bit more time finding their cows in bad weather, like shepherds do. It's difficult work… but they chose it."
Some have suggested the bells be replaced with microchips or GPS devices to making tracking cattle easier (and quieter), but critics of that idea say it goes against time-honored tradition.
But future research into how the cowbells might be negatively impacting business may have farmers considering making the switch — especially since past studies have found that happy cows produce more milk.