birds

Looking for birds and plastic in Denmark

Reflecting on my recent research trip to Copenhagen

©Erica Cirino. Eurasian magpie. 

©Erica Cirino. Eurasian magpie. 

People who love birds look for birds wherever they go. I happen to be one of those people. 

When I recently took a trip to Denmark, early morning bird watching with my Alaskan malamute dog became one of the most pleasurable parts of my daily routine. We’d walk from our fifth-floor apartment in Copenhagen’s Nørrebro neighborhood down and around the three manmade lakes that run through the heart of the city. Because where there is water, one will often find birds.

©Erica Cirino. Sortedams Sø, one of the three lakes that run through the heart of Copenhagen. 

©Erica Cirino. Sortedams Sø, one of the three lakes that run through the heart of Copenhagen. 

©Erica Cirino. Foosa, my birdwatching buddy.

©Erica Cirino. Foosa, my birdwatching buddy.

And we did see birds, my dog and I. They belonged to an interesting array of species: hooded crows, Eurasian magpies, mute swans, mallards, pigeons, great blue herons, Eurasian coots, great cormorants, black-headed gulls, red-necked grebes….

©Erica Cirino. Black-headed gulls. 

©Erica Cirino. Black-headed gulls. 

©Erica Cirino. Male mallard duck. 

©Erica Cirino. Male mallard duck. 

©Erica Cirino. Eurasian coots.

©Erica Cirino. Eurasian coots.

Seeing so many birds in one small urban environment was heartening. But the birds’ habitat itself wasn’t always pretty. The lakes in Denmark — like many water bodies all over the world — are filled with plastic. Some of it is thrown there intentionally, while the rest blows in off roads and out of trashcans.

On more than one occasion I watched plastic bags — just out of my reach — blow across the water’s surface past the many birds that floated there. A lot of the bags, and other plastic trash — like water bottles, balloons and children’s toys — sank to the bottom of the lakes, right where many of the water birds dive and dabble. Research on plastic suggests bottom-feeding organisms are ingesting the stuff — so there’s little reason to believe the birds I’m seeing aren’t scooping some of it up.

©Erica Cirino. Mute swan in trash-filled water. 

©Erica Cirino. Mute swan in trash-filled water. 

©Erica Cirino. Close-up of trash (mostly plastic) next to mute swan. 

©Erica Cirino. Close-up of trash (mostly plastic) next to mute swan. 

There is a big political push now in Denmark to combat plastic pollution. SF, a left-wing political party just introduced a new bill that would help do that. Pro-environment nonprofits and non-governmental organizations such as the Danish Ecological Council are pushing for it to become law.

According to the Danish scientists I met with, one newly identified source of plastic pollution is plastic microfiber found in clothing. This microfiber can be found in wastewater sludge, which is used to fertilize crops — from which plastic is probably being washed off by rain back into the oceans and other water bodies. To limit this type of plastic pollution, scientists say plastic-free clothing as well as upgraded sewage and sewage treatment technologies are needed.

So, while plastic is now getting a lot of political attention in Denmark and other parts of the world, only our own actions can prevent pollution. And scientists say that means we need to use less or no plastic, and if we do use it we must take care to dispose of it properly or take measures to ensure it doesn’t end up in natural ecosystems.

Until we do these things, we can expect to see plastic collecting quite unnaturally amongst the birds and other wild creatures — where it should not be.

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Erica Cirino is a freelance science writer and artist based in New York, who is traveling the world to bear witness to plastic pollution and meet with plastic experts. She’s currently giving and scheduling presentations about her findings as part of her Go and See Tour: A Discussion About Plastic Pollution at high schools, colleges and public places. She is the recipient of a 2017 Safina Center Kalpana Launchpad Fellowship, which is helping support this project. 

Originally posted to the Safina Center Blog on March 28, 2017. 

Actions and consequences: Why you should think before you do

There's a whole Earth out there to consider.

American kestrel. Credit: Erica Cirino, 2012.

American kestrel. Credit: Erica Cirino, 2012.

When I was a child, I'd sit for hours watching the bird bath and bird houses arranged in my yard as soon as the weather got warm. From my seat in a lawn chair hidden behind a large island of tall lilies and grasses, I could see soaring hawks, jumping robins, drumming woodpeckers and hovering hummingbirds. I'd scrawl the names and descriptions of what I saw (or thought I saw), along with a few drawings, in the notebook that laid open in my lap. 

With my trusty Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America by my side in case I needed help, as early as age seven I was already well on my way to becoming an ornithologist. 

Birds continue to hold a special place in my heart. Last month I began freelancing for the National Audubon Society, and just two days ago my second story for the organization went live. While I sometimes wish I had more time to fit bird watching into my work schedule, writing about my avian friends is almost as fun as watching them.

My most recent story for Audubon is an important one: Researchers know today that human actions, such as using pesticides, planting monoculture (or single-species crops) and climate change, are causing a major loss of species--including birds. 

For ornithologists, clearly any loss of birds is very sad--catastrophic, even. But what about for the backyard birder, or just everyday people who like to wake up to the sound of chirping but don't see themselves as ever heading out of the house at 6am to look for warblers in their local park?

The experts I've spoken have emphasized over and over again: Birds, like many other species, are a key part of the way Earth functions. Some pollinate plants, some eat pests, some serve as food to other animals. Eliminate single or multiple species of birds and you have yourself an unbalanced Earth. Meaning the food, water, trees, air and everything upon which humans rely would disintegrate before our eyes.

While some species naturally go extinct over time, the rapid rate at which animals are being lost today is unnatural. And, it's all our fault--our spraying of pesticides, our building of houses, our cutting down trees, our driving cars...the list goes on and on. 

Does this make you sad? It makes me sad. 

This is how I see it:

Birds are a way to bridge the gap between the real and the ethereal. They are flying, singing creatures with a grace and beauty unmatched. They are sentinels for a healthy environment: we use chemicals, we pollute, we chop down trees...and they suffer. Their well-being is a barometer of human actions, indicating where we are doing good by the Earth, and where we are failing. They can teach us to care more.

So, while humans have the potential to hurt birds, we can also help them (and the other species with whom we share this Earth). We can choose not to use toxic pesticides and chemicals (or at the very least, use less of them). We can choose not to cut down trees. We can choose not to litter. We can choose to plant more wild vegetation for bird habitat. 

Our actions have consequences. And those consequences don't just affect us. There's a whole Earth out there (with lots of birds and other critters) to consider.


Lingering thoughts:

  • What do birds mean to you?
  • What is the worst thing you do for the health of the Earth?
  • What is the best thing you do for the health of the Earth?