Meet the birds who make their nests out of plastic

What do birds build their nest of? Simple question right?

You’d assume that birds build their homes from all things natural, such as twigs, leaves or mosses. Unfortunately, this is not always the case – we have seen a shift from the use of natural materials to man made materials.

Plastics – the new nest material

Out on the waterways we see nests full of plastic – from bags to cigarette butts. Plastic is a material with some wonderful properties: it’s durable, an insulator, lightweight and strong. As Ben Wurst, who has spent his life studying ospreys, said: ”birds see plastic as a useful resource for them to build their nests from, but they don’t see the potential danger.” There are many reports of chicks becoming entangled in plastic – trapped and strangled by their own nests. Plastic is also indigestible, and you can only imagine what happens if a bird accidentally consumes plastic waste.

The temperature of nests is also carefully controlled to ensure correct embryo development within an egg. As plastic is a great insulator (keeps things warm), plastic-laced nests may be hotter than those made with natural materials, affecting chick development. Plastic items are also often brightly coloured, making nests more visible to predators. Some studies show that coloured plastics are actually changing the behaviour of birds. Black kites are collecting plastic items in their nests as ‘status symbols’. The more plastic the birds have, the higher up the social hierarchy they are. In Australia, male satin bowerbirds build intricate stick structures called ‘bowers’ to attract females made decorated with all things blue. In the past, berries, flowers, shells and feathers used to adorn the bowers, but have been swapped for artificial blue plastics. What might the consequences of this new plastic ‘social currency’ be?

Male satin bowerbird decorates his bower with blue plastic items as part of a courtship display to attract females

 

What can we do about it?

Clean ups can temporarily help these animals to live a plastic free life. Studies on brown footed boobies (is this the best bird name in the world?) show that plastic content in nests is correlated to the levels of plastic pollution in the area. If plastic waste is available and common, birds are likely to use it. If there is no plastic, then obviously it cannot be used as a nest material.

Ultimately the problem needs to stop at source. We could pick up plastic litter all our lives, but that won’t stop plastic entering the environment in the first place. Evidence is needed to help us understand the problem and develop solutions. That’s why Plastic Patrol has teamed up with the University of Nottingham to analyse data collected by you in the Plastic Patrol app. With this insight we can focus our community clean-up efforts, but more importantly, it means we can create vital evidence to target large manufacturers and corporations to put accountability back in the hands of these responsible and turn off the tap at the source.

As well as collecting evidence, we can all make bird friendly choices in our everyday lives. Whether that be recycling, reducing and reusing or swapping single-use items to multi-use, sustainable options. Before you use something, think about how it was made and what will happen to it after you’ve finished with it. Don’t let your products find their way into the natural world.

Images of entangled birds and plastic-filled nests have horrified the public. The rivers where these swans are nesting are symbolic of our oceans and waterways. What does it say about the state of our environment when wildlife can more readily find waste man made materials than natural materials?

At least for the birds there’s no fear that their plastic nests won’t be stable enough. That plastic could still be there in 450 years…

by Hannah Whiting

American coot nest full of plastic spotted during a Plastic Patrol clean up

Swans nest built upon layers of plastic bags

Information for this blog taken from:

https://www.thenatureofcities.com/2016/12/11/garbage-homes-use-artificial-material-nesting-material-birds/

https://www.audubon.org/news/more-plastic-world-means-more-plastic-osprey-nests

https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/news/2018/october/seabirds-in-the-pacific-are-using-plastic-to-build-nests.html

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