The tragic images of wild animals tangled up in human-made waste

The tragic images of wild animals tangled up in human-made waste

A series of photographs taken around the world drew attention by showing several birds curled up or trapped in human-made garbage.

The photos were submitted by people from different countries to an online project called Birds and Debris.

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Scientists responsible for the project say there are images of birds tangled up in all sorts of material: fishing lines, ropes, masks, flip-flops and even balloon ribbons. In part, they use these materials to build nests.

Almost a quarter of the photographs show birds trapped in disposable masks, used as protection against Covid-19.

The project’s focus is on capturing the impact of waste – particularly plastic pollution – on the bird world.

Mary Caporal Prior in the United States captured this image of a mallard with a mask around its neck — Photo: Mary Caporal Prior

“Basically, if a bird builds a nest using long fibrous materials – such as seaweed, twigs or reeds – there is a high chance that there will be human debris in its nest,” explains Alex Bond of the Natural History Museum in London, one of the researchers involved. in action.

The project, which he and his colleagues have been running for four years, aims to draw attention to the widespread problem of plastic waste in the environment.

“When you start looking, you see this kind of waste everywhere,” he says. “And the pictures really show that it’s a global problem. We’ve had reports from Japan, Australia, Sri Lanka, the UK, North America. This is really a worldwide issue.”

Pigeons at a construction site in Sussex used pieces of plastic in their nests — Photo: Matthew Irish

In a recent study, the team looked at how many of the uploaded photos show birds wrapped in personal protective equipment (PPE) related to the pandemic. They appeared in nearly a quarter of the submitted photographs.

“Most are masks,” says Bond. “And if you think about the different materials a surgical mask is made of – there’s the rubber band we see wrapped around the legs of birds or we can see injured birds trying to ingest the fabric or the hard piece of plastic that holds the mask to their nose.”

Masks, like this one stuck on a bird in Singapore, are the most common items related to the pandemic in photographs — Photo: Adrian Silas Tay

“We use that umbrella term of ‘plastic’, but there’s a whole range of different polymers, and masks are a good example of that.”

The researchers say a “systemic problem” that drives so much debris into the environment.

Researcher Justine Amendolia, from Dalhousie University in Canada, says that analyzing the magnitude of this impact on the species was “devastating”.

“In April 2020, the first sighting of a bird hanging in a protective mask in a tree was recorded in Canada. The sightings spread around the world afterwards”, he says. “It really demonstrates the damage that humans are capable of doing to the environment in a very short window of time.”

This common coot was found surrounded by litter in its nest in the Netherlands — Photo: Sam M.

“Switching to a bamboo toothbrush or canvas shopping bag is not going to save the world, [porque] most large-scale plastic production today is commercial and industrial,” says Bond.

“So it takes a combination of top-down policy and bottom-up pressure to say ‘enough is enough’.”

Bird that made a nest with debris in Canada — Photo: Malcolm Jolly

“For people seeing these images for the first time, it’s okay to feel sad. But we need to learn from the suffering, often unseen, that some wild animals have experienced during the pandemic,” adds PhD student Justine Amendolia.

Bond compared the measures needed to tackle plastic pollution to the Montreal Protocol, which banned chemicals that deplete the ozone layer – a treaty considered one of the most successful global agreements ever signed.

“We need the same thing with plastic pollution, and we’re moving in that direction, but very, very slowly.”

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