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How Plastics Affect Birds

Litter has become ubiquitous in all of the world’s oceans. It is either carelessly disposed at sea from boats and platforms, or on land, making its way to sea through wind, rain and river discharges. Marine litter is primarily composed of plastics and because plastics are resistant they don’t decompose rapidly, but in an order of centuries. However, they do break down into smaller pieces and marine species mistake those bits for food. Many marine animals are impacted by debris at sea and beaches all over the world are polluted with all types of litter. Over 600 species (Gall & Thompson, 2015) have been reported to ingest marine litter that could mimic their prey. Seabirds are highly affected. Because debris such as plastics are buoyant, seabirds mistake them for food when searching for prey on the sea surface. These pieces of plastics can be particularly hard to regurgitate for some species and they tend to accumulate them in their stomach, leaving no space for real food and leading the animal to die from starvation. Sharp pieces of plastic could also perforate the digestive tract and cause ulcers. Chemicals added to plastics are prone to leaching and can cause hormone disruption, affecting animal fitness and reproduction (Besseling et al., 2013).
Besseling, E., Wegner, A., Foekema, E. M., van den Heuvel-Greve, M. J., & Koelmans, A. A. (2013). Effects of Microplastic on Fitness and PCB Bioaccumulation by the Lugworm Arenicola marina (L.). Environmental Science & Technology, 47(1), 593–600. doi:10.1021/es302763x
Gall, S. C., & Thompson, R. C. (2015). The impact of debris on marine life. Marine Pollution Bulletin. doi:10.1016/j.marpolbul.2014.12.041

Beached Bird Survey 

The Republic of Ireland Beached Bird Survey is an initiative to establish the monitoring of marine litter in Irish waters through seabirds. It is a network of volunteers that regularly walk Irish beaches and collect beached birds carcasses.  We  use the litter content in the stomachs of  the  birds as a measure of  marine litter. Beached seabirds could provide Ireland with important data, comparable to other European countries that will help meet our marine litter monitoring obligations and inform national policy in this area.