There are lots of crazy questions about chewing gum. Does it take seven years to digest gum? (Answer: No.) Does gum come from gum trees? (Answer: Not anymore.) What is the fear of chewing gum? (Answer: Chiclephobia.) But for birders, the most important question of all is: Can gum kill birds? Answer: Yes and no (mostly no!).
About the Rumor
The idea that birds die from eating gum has spread for years through heart-wrenching emails and social media posts. These posts typically show a poignant photo of a bird, often a dead barn swallow with its devoted mate standing guard, or else photos of ducklings or other cute birds that have met their demise. Along with the photo is text that claims the dead bird ate a piece of gum because it looked like a piece of bread. Because the gum is indigestible, however, it supposedly clogged the bird's digestive tract and caused a slow, painful death from starvation. Other, less common variations may claim a wad of gum can look like a brightly colored bug or a juicy berry, both of which could tempt hungry birds. The end result, of course, is always the death of a beautiful bird because of a wad of gum.
Is It True? Can Birds Die From Eating Gum?
It is possible that eating gum can kill birds, but not in the manner suggested by these hoaxes. A small bird may choke on an exceptionally large wad of gum, or a large wad of gum with other material or litter stuck to it could block a bird's digestion. In reality, however, there have never been any verified records from wildlife officials, bird rehabilitators, ornithologists, naturalists, or experienced birders that note birds dying because of eating gum. There are many reasons why it is highly unlikely that a discarded wad of chewing gum would ever be a danger to birds, and why this particular rumor is nothing more than an unsubstantiated urban legend.
- Gum doesn't look that much like bread or any other food for birds: Birds are very adept at finding edible things on the ground, from fruit, bugs, and seeds to grain, worms, and scraps. At the same time, they discard inedible material, such as rocks, marbles, bark chunks, cigarette butts, and other general litter. While they might peck at a wad of gum, the texture would immediately turn a bird off and they wouldn't bite or swallow the gum.
- Any ingested gum would pass through the bird's digestive tract like other food: While gum wouldn't be broken down by a bird's digestive process, it would pass through their bodies just like other inedible material such as rodent bones, fur, or fruit seeds. The birds would either regurgitate the inedible material in a pellet or else it would be evacuated from their bodies as feces. In fact, for many frugivorous birds, this process is an important part of restoring habitat, as birds spread undigested seeds throughout their range to grow more plants.
- The birds pictured in the "rumor photo" would never eat bread anyway: The most common photo accompanying the "gum kills birds" rumor is a pair of barn swallows. These are insectivorous birds and wouldn't be at all interested in a real piece of bread on the ground, much less one as fake-looking as a wad of gum. Furthermore, these birds only feed in flight, catching bugs in midair. They wouldn't land on the ground to investigate any type of food, including either bread or gum. The photo most commonly used with this hoax is actually a bird that was killed when it collided with a vehicle.
- There are no reports of birds dying from gum, even in gum-clogged areas: If birds really did die from eating gum, it's reasonable to think there would be many reports of these untimely deaths in areas where a lot of discarded gum is available. The famous "gum walls" such as the Market Theater Gum Wall near Pike Place Market in Seattle, Washington and Bubblegum Alley in San Luis Obispo, California ought to be popular feeding grounds for gum-hungry birds, but there are no birds picking at the walls. Even in other urban areas, there are no reports of birds dying from gum discarded on sidewalks, in parking lots, or even in parks where birds regularly find other food.
The True Dangers of Littering
It may be very unlikely that birds will die from eating gum, but litter is still hazardous to birds and other wildlife. Discarded gum, especially sugar-free gums, often have chemical flavorings or artificial sweeteners that can be highly toxic to pets or other wildlife that might ingest the gum (even though birds won't). Any litter, including gum, is unsightly and erodes respect for natural spaces, which can lead to habitat destruction and loss. Certain types of litter such as fishing line, balloons, or plastic bits are also grave threats to birds not only because of ingestion dangers but also because of other injuries or problems they may cause.
While birds won't die from discarded wads of gum, it is always best to dispose of chewing gum and any other litter properly to safeguard all wildlife and natural beauty.