Florida Birds of Prey Consume Hundreds of Tiny Plastic Bits a Day

Accumulation of Microplastics in Birds’ Digestive Systems Leads to Poisoning, Starvation, and Death

Reading Time: 3 minutes

We all see the horrific images of what happens to wildlife when they mistake plastic pollution for food.

It’s not a pretty picture and boggles the mind why humanity continues discarding plastic into the environment.

This trash impacts everything it touches and has a devastating effect on land and sea animals.

Birds of Prey are Swallowing Plastic Debris

Plastic pollution is reaching epic proportions worldwide, and large numbers of birds ingest bits and pieces of plastic waste by mistaking them for fish and other edibles.

A new study from the University of Central Florida (UCF) confirms and quantifies for the first time, the presence of microplastics in land and sea birds of prey in Florida, including hawks, ospreys, and owls.

Birds of prey are swallowing tiny bits of plastic debris at a rate of hundreds a day, particularly microplastic fragments made of polyester, polypropylene, and nylon.

Microplastics are small plastic pieces – less than the size of a pencil tip – that come from larger pieces of plastic, such as synthetic clothes, or that are made small for use in health and beauty products or industrial purposes.

Birds of prey are critical to a functioning ecosystem, and the accumulation of microplastics in their digestive systems can lead to poisoning, starvation, and death.

Microplastics in an Osprey’s digestive system leads to poisoning, starvation, and death

Plastic Has Adverse Impact on Food Web

“Birds of prey are top predators in the ecosystem, and by changing the population or health status of the top predator, it completely alters all of the animals, organisms, and habitats below them on the food web,” says Julia Carlin, the study’s lead author and a graduate of UCF’s Department of Biology.

According to Linda Walters, a Pegasus Professor in UCF’s Department of Biology and study co-author, microplastic contamination of the environment begins as soon as the first piece of plastic is discarded.

Past studies document increasing amounts of microplastics in the guts of fish, marine birds, and filter-feeding invertebrates, such as oysters.

Recent reports detail whales dying from eating dozens of pounds of plastic, including plastic bags.

However, birds of prey weren’t thoroughly examined before due to their protected status.

Carlin and Walters worked with the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey in Maitland, Florida, a rehabilitation center that helps injured raptors.


Microfibers Top Plastics Found

Researchers examined 63 dead birds of prey from throughout Central Florida.

The birds were either dead before reaching the center or died within 24 hours of arrival.

Using dissecting microscopes and spectroscopy, the researchers found microplastics in the digestive systems of all birds examined.

Nearly 1,200 pieces of plastic.

Microplastics were significantly more abundant in Red-shouldered Hawks, that consume small mammals, snakes, and amphibians than Osprey

The most common types of microplastics were microfibers, accounting for 86% of the plastics.

Microfibers come from synthetic ropes or clothing and may end up in ecosystems through wastewater from clothes-washing machines.

Blue and clear microplastics were the most common colors.

Researchers think birds confuse these colors with prey or nesting materials.

Stopping the birds from ingesting plastic might be an impossible task, and researchers need our help.

How You Can Help

We need to make sure much less plastic waste enters the environment.

Here how we can do this.

-Remove plastic waste from landfills.

-Make sure discarded plastic trash is carefully screened.

-Retrofit water treatment plants and stormwater drains to capture microplastics before they enter waterways and the oceans.

-Buy natural fabrics instead of plastic-based ones.

-Demand companies ditch plastic and use natural packaging.

If we all do our part, we can lessen the amount of plastics entering the environment.

We’re up for the challenge, how about you?

Read the research report published in Environmental Pollution here.


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