How Litter Hurts Birds

The Effects of Litter on Birds

Gull With Litter
Ingrid Taylar/Flickr/CC by 2.0

One small piece of litter may not seem like much, but even minor amounts of litter can be devastating to birds in a number of ways. Understanding how litter hurts birds can lead to more responsible trash disposal and other measures to keep the environment clean and suitable for birds and other wildlife.

Types of Litter That Hurts Birds

All types of litter can have detrimental effects on birds, though some of the most insidious trash is also some of the most common, including:

  • Rotten, discarded food
  • Lead-based items, such as bullet casings or fishing sinkers
  • Fishing line, long ribbons or kite string
  • Discarded plastic of all shapes and sizes
  • Abandoned or runaway balloons
  • Oil-based liquid litter, such as spilled motor oil or kitchen grease

While these items may be the most dangerous, all intended litter has bad consequences for the birds.

How Litter Affects Birds

Depending on the specific type of litter, it can affect birds in several ways.

  • Poisoning: Toxic litter, such as lead casings, paint chips, heavily moldy food or cigarette butts can poison birds if ingested. While small amounts of the material may not be immediately harmful except to small birds or nestlings, many toxic substances have cumulative effects and can cause serious illness, deformities or death over time.
  • Digestive Blockage: Plastic litter or bits of rubber balloons, especially small, brightly colored pieces, may look irresistible to foraging birds, but it cannot be digested. Instead, it will stay in the digestive tract, blocking the passage of food and eventually starving the bird because it will not be able to eat due to the amount of litter it has ingested.
  • Injuries: Sharp shards of glass or plastic can injure birds that swallow them, cutting into the throat or intestines and causing hemorrhages. Fishing line or kite string can become wrapped around birds and cause cuts or amputations to the wings, legs, feet or neck, injuries that can prove fatal. If these materials are used in nesting, hatchlings can be strangled or injured.
  • Plumage Disruption: A bird's plumage must be precisely aligned to provide proper insulation and easy flight, and even a small amount of oil or grease can harm a bird. Waterfowl, in particular, are susceptible to oiling that can lead to hypothermia. As birds preen to remove the oil, ingesting the toxin can also lead to poisoning.
  • Habitat Loss: Heavily littered areas are unsuitable for nesting, feeding or shelter, forcing birds to seek out less desirable areas with greater competition for necessary resources. Litter can also contaminate water sources, and the polluted ground is less likely to support insects or seed- or fruit-bearing plants for food sources.
  • Attracting Predators: Discarded food that is left as litter can attract predators such as rats, feral cats, raccoons and foxes that will also prey on birds or nests. Rotting litter can also give rise to bacteria that will cause illness in birds, or it may attract ticks or mites that can be detrimental pests.

How You Can Help

Thousands of birds die each year because of littering effects, but fortunately, even a few small steps can help protect birds. Easy ways anyone can help include:

  • The Three Rs: Reduce, reuse and recycle. The less litter is produced, the less there will be to affect the birds. This includes recycling at work, schools and in the home, as well as promoting community and retail programs to reduce waste materials.
  • Pick Up Litter: When out for a walk, pick up litter you find, or organize a litter clean up the event as a service project. This is especially critical in refuges, nature preserves and other essential habitats, but is useful wherever litter is picked up.
  • Dispose of Trash Properly: Always dispose of trash in tightly closed bags that are less likely to break and scatter litter, and be sure trash cans are properly positioned so they will not tip or spill. At public events, always used available trash cans to get rid of litter and debris.
  • Be a Good Example: Share tips with family members, friends, co-workers and neighbors about how to reduce litter and why doing so is important for all birds and wildlife. Give birthday or holiday gifts to help reduce litter, such as reusable bags or mugs, and always practice litter-reducing habits yourself.

    By understanding how litter affects birds and how to take simple steps to reduce the problem, it is possible to protect birds and provide a beautiful, litter-free environment for both wildlife and humans to enjoy.