Help the birds by picking up litter, especially plastic


In July 2018, I started a blog post with the photo above and these words: “I came across this scene the other day. I won’t divulge my reaction! Outdoor men and women often seek vistas. Landscape photographers often do the same. But few, with the possible exception of casual nature bloggers, are looking for something like this. This is what I observed: our world filled with miniature trash.

This is a place locals call “the curve,” where Bainbridge Boulevard in Chesapeake, Virginia takes a sharp turn. The dirt road is large enough to accommodate several parked cars. ‘The Curve’ is popular with crabbers, anglers, and boaters, as Mains Creek, which empties into the Elizabeth River, is a short walk away. But this place, like so many others, regularly fills with trash. And waste is harmful, especially to wildlife.

I continued to post: “This jumble of rubbish heaps was just a few yards from a tributary of the Elizabeth River. And that will be its destination following a rainstorm, a higher than usual tide or some other event. Hell, all that trash could eventually reach the bay or the ocean. And some, or some parts, can reach the digestive system of unsuspecting animals or humans. These words were followed by more ominous words: “Animals belong here. People belong here. Almost everything has its place here. But not the waste. Waste is an eyesore. Waste pollutes. Garbage destroys habitat. And waste kills.

Waste is an eyesore. This is one of the reasons so many organizations devote resources to its removal. For example, the Friends of the Indian River, a Chesapeake-area nonprofit organization, sponsors quarterly clean-up days in and around the river. I interviewed Rogard Ross, the founder of Friends, who told me that cleaning up is important because pollution affects quality of life. Who wants to see trash everywhere? But he also explained that they are important because the waste alters habitat and scares away wildlife, especially ecologically important birds and bees.

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Dumped tires in the Great Dismal Swamp NWR in Suffolk, Virginia. Photo by Dave Gibson

Here is an extreme example of habitat modification. The tires pictured above were dumped in a ditch at the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. My wife and I spent an entire day pulling them out and hauling them to a dumpster. Such changes in the physical habitat are of course worrisome. But even more concerning are the structural changes caused by toxins in carelessly discarded waste. These toxins contaminate soil and groundwater and also impact plants and animals.

Ross continued in our interview by focusing on the waste component: plastic. He expressed concern that plastic waste is “entering the food chain” and harming animals. He and his team find tires, plywood, pieces of dock, strollers and toys, some of which are in this recent pile of cleanup waste. (Abandoned tires are now part of the landscape, right?) But by far, in terms of volume, they find more polystyrene (actually polystyrene foam), plastic bottle caps, cigarette butts cigarettes and filters, ketchup packets, food wrappers, straws and other single-use plastic items.

Other organizations, like the Elizabeth River Project, another local conservation nonprofit, or much larger organizations like the Ocean Conservancy and the Environmental Protection Agency, see the same assortment of waste. Here are some additional photos from my area, scenes that are likely familiar to birdwatchers around the world.

Photo by Dave Gibson
Photo by Dave Gibson
Photo by Dave Gibson

Kat Fish, volunteer coordinator for the Elizabeth River Project, reports that volunteers find a disproportionate amount of plastic during their cleanups, ranging from food wrappers and fishing lines to water bottles and take-out containers.

Plastic litter is a particularly threatening problem, especially when it reaches our rivers and oceans, as much of it does. I said it in the blog excerpt above.

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Some plastics are inherently toxic. But some plastics become toxic when deadly chemicals like PCBs and DDT attach themselves to them. Over time, this plastic waste breaks down into smaller pieces, called “microplastics”.

World Migratory Bird Day 2019 poster. Artwork by Arnaldo Toledo Sotolongo

These pieces of plastic, found in the water column, are then ingested by organisms like plankton and fish. And fish is eaten by birds and other animals higher up the food chain. Once ingested by birds and other species, the particles can damage organs, increase susceptibility to disease or interfere with reproductive health. According to the EPA, nearly half of seabird species are affected.

Towards the end of our interview, Ross and I agreed that all was not bleak, however. Yes, there are challenges to overcome and there is still a lot of work to do. But individuals and organizations like Friends, the Elizabeth River Project and the Ocean Conservancy are facing the challenges head-on.

And this year, World Migratory Bird Day draws attention to plastic pollution and its impact on migratory birds and their habitats. You can get involved by hosting or attending a JMMB event, displaying the 2019 poster, and ordering a cleanup kit for a family or group.

“Studies show that local projects on plastic waste management produce results in a short time,” according to WMBD organizers. “Thus, common sense and awareness can help stem the giant tide of plastic. The international community must take urgent action to mitigate unnecessary injury and death to migratory birds from plastic pollution. World Migratory Bird Day 2019 is a unique opportunity to join efforts to solve the serious problem of plastic pollution and highlight its negative effects on migratory birds. Let’s unite our voices to respond to this rapidly growing environmental concern! »