How Balloons Hurt Birds

Balloons Stuck in a Tree
When balloons are stuck in a tree, they're a threat to birds and wildlife. - Photo © Michelle Tribe

Massive balloon releases are often a celebratory part of happy events or a symbolic commemoration of something significant. Despite the innocence and beauty of balloons, however, they have unintended dangerous consequences for birds and other wildlife. Balloons can kill birds, and by learning how balloon releases – whether a single balloon being set free or thousands of balloons in a coordinated release – can endanger birds, you can minimize the risks these events pose.

Where Balloons Come From

The balloons that can injure or kill birds come from many sources, and may not even be deliberately released. A single balloon can inadvertently escape from an otherwise anchored bunch of balloons such as those used for special events like weddings, birthdays or decorative balloon sculptures, such as balloon towers or arches used in advertising promotions. Schools may use balloon releases for studying wind currents – deliberately releasing balloons with notes in the hopes that the note may eventually be returned, with little regard for how it may affect wildlife along the way. Even a small child releasing a balloon for the joy of watching it rise into the sky can accidentally endanger birds.

The greatest threat, however, is when great masses of balloons are released. Balloon releases are popular for charity drives, races, graduations, weddings, fairs and other events, but in just a few minutes, such a release adds hundreds or thousands of potential threats to birds into the environment.

Fortunately, some areas are beginning to impose laws against balloon releases, and individuals or companies who release balloons could be held liable for littering, endangering wildlife and other unlawful actions. Those laws are still scarce, however, and every day more birds are affected by irresponsible balloon releases.

How Balloons Hurt Birds

Many different types of birds can be impacted by balloons, from songbirds to raptors to seabirds. Depending on the type of balloon, how many balloons are connected and what strings or ribbons they may use, the consequences birds face when they come into contact with balloons can be devastating. The different ways balloons may hurt birds include…

  • Starvation: One of the most common ways balloons harm birds is through inadvertent ingestion. Seabirds such as gannets, shearwaters, albatrosses and petrels may mistake a deflated balloon that has landed on the water as a jellyfish or squid. The latex or mylar of the balloon is indigestible, however, and will clog the bird’s stomach. If enough of this type of material is consumed, the bird will no longer be able to take in enough nutrition to survive, and it will gradually starve. Choking is also a threat depending on the size of the balloon and how the bird eats it.
  • Tangling: If released balloons have ribbons or strings attached, they can become a tangle hazard for birds as the strings get caught in trees or bushes, similar to how fishing line hurts birds. Birds may become tangled if they fly into the string, or they may try to use the string as nesting material and it could tangle around growing hatchlings. Tangle injuries can include malformed nestling growth, open wounds from chafing as the tangle tightens or mobility restriction of the legs, wings or bill. All of these effects can not only harm the bird directly, but can also make it more vulnerable to predators and infections.
  • Habitat Loss: The tropical rubber trees necessary to produce latex can be harvested without being cut down completely. As the demand for more rubber for balloons grows, however, the tropical vegetation will be denuded or changed, depriving birds of the diverse, rich habitat they require for survival. This can impact hundreds of bird species even if there isn’t a single balloon in sight, and the effects cannot be quickly rectified.

In addition to birds, many other types of wildlife are adversely affected by balloons, including sea turtles, dolphins, whales, seals and sharks.

How You Can Help

Fortunately, it is easy to help mitigate the threats balloons pose to birds and other wildlife. Easy steps you can take to minimize the use of balloon releases and protect birds from balloon debris include:

  • Avoid any events that incorporate balloon releases, and never include such a release in an event or celebration you plan.
  • If balloons must be used outdoors, be sure they are anchored securely with multiple tethers in case one anchor fails.
  • If possible, avoid using helium balloons of any kind and instead opt for balloons that will fall rather than rise so they can be more easily collected and disposed of properly.
  • Organize local cleanups of beaches, parks and other areas where balloon debris is often found, and puncture each balloon before it is disposed of so it cannot escape again.
  • Spread the word to teachers, event planners and other individuals who may consider balloon releases about the threats these events pose and encourage them to embrace alternatives instead.
  • Promote safer alternatives to balloon releases, such as blowing bubbles, trained dove releases, decorative sparklers or hot air balloons that can be monitored and controlled.

While many people see balloons simply as pretty decorations with a wispy innocence when they rise into the sky, when those balloons come down they can injure or kill birds and other wildlife. By understanding the threats balloons pose to birds, every birder can take easy steps to minimize those threats and protect birds so they can rise into the sky themselves.