Do Birds Eat Plastic?

Susan Gallagher, Naturalist
Featured Water Professional

A woman visiting the nature center where I work posed the question. She’d been enjoying watching the black vultures that frequented her neighborhood and was concerned to find dozens of plastic bits littering the ground beneath their roosts. The brightly colored debris seemed embedded in vulture waste, as if the birds had coughed it up or excreted it onto the ground.

Where black vultures are concerned, the answer to the question of plastic ingestion is a definitive yes. Like gulls at the Jersey Shore, these birds skirt the peripheries of human habitations, frequenting our landfills and dumpsters for edible scraps.

Whether by accident or intent (perhaps as an aid in digestion) their penchant for swallowing plastic is well documented. One study of a North Carolina black vulture roost found plastic debris in 60% of the waste samples tested.

Like most scavengers, these vultures are tough, resilient animals. While all that plastic certainly can’t be good for them, they seem to suffer no harmful population-level effects. Not so for other species.

A recent study appearing in the Journal of Hazardous Materials assigns the name plasticosis to a newly discovered phenomenon harming at least one species of seabird to great extent.

The report documents how plastics are affecting populations of flesh-footed shearwaters, birds inhabiting a remote island nearly 400 miles from Australia’s eastern coast.

Plastic debris of all sizes washes up on the shores of Lord Howe Island in quantities large enough to end up in the stomachs of flesh-footed shearwaters, medium-sized seabirds that may ingest it mistakenly as food, or out of simple curiosity. 

Once plastic gets in, it doesn’t come out, and as the jagged shards damage the birds’ stomach linings, chronic scarring and inflammation result. This condition is what the researchers dubbed plasticosis, and they’ve found it rampant on Lord Howe. Roughly 90% of necropsied birds had plastic in the digestive tract, with some birds containing over 200 individual pieces of trash.

The scarring indicative of plasticosis makes feeding and digestion increasingly difficult, and near impossible for nestling shearwaters—some were fed so much plastic by parent birds that their bloated, hardened stomachs can no longer hold any food. 

So, who cares about flesh footed shearwaters! Most of us will likely never encounter one, and only serious birders would care if they did. But as goes the shearwater, so go many other animals, plastic debris having been documented in over 1,000 marine species.

This all comes as little surprise to those who follow the saga of plastic pollution. Whether as microplastics — pieces smaller than 5 millimeters—or larger macroplastics, the debris is now found throughout the Earth’s oceans, from the deepest Pacific trenches, to the formerly pristine waters of the Arctic.

Of course, plastics cause problems for wildlife in other ways. We’ve all seen pictures of sea turtles tangled in plastic six-pack rings (why are we still using them when alternatives exist??) but look closely at just about any songbird nest, and you’ll no doubt find fine strips of cellophane or shreds of plastic tarps. 

Pay attention the next time it rains, and watch as stormwater carries litter of all sizes, colors, and compositions down the street and off to your nearest river or stream. All of that keeps flowing downhill, and likely ends up in the oceans eventually.

A quick Google search on the “Great Pacific garbage patch” is sobering, as is one statistic that says we’re dumping the equivalent of one garbage truck load of plastics into the seas every 45 seconds, simply by improperly disposing of wastes that last a long, long time in the environment.

Wildlife does not suffer alone, and humans have not been spared the hazards of plastic pollution. Microplastic particles have been found in our bloodstreams—and even in our placentas. The most vulnerable among us are arriving from the womb, contaminated before the first breath.

If it all sounds too discouraging, take heart! Since people created the problem, people can solve it. We can start by evaluating our personal use of plastics, and the ways we dispose of them.

While they’re not all bad (who, for example, would want to be treated in an emergency room free of sterile plastic packages, syringes, and tubing!) there are products that beg to be phased out by lack of consumer demand.

Single-use plastic dental flossers, water bottles, straws and other disposables all have re-usable alternatives today. Recycling programs at best, or proper landfill disposal at least, can work for the plastics we do buy.

Voicing concerns about plastic pollution to policy makers can have an impact on a larger scale, while simple litter clean-ups are hugely beneficial at a local level.

Remembering that “we all live downstream”, and staying conscious of the effects our plastics have on the environment is the most important step in helping wildlife—and ourselves—from the dangers of this debris. Do birds eat plastics?  Yes, they do and so do we which is not good for us, them, and the environment.