Humans aren't the only species with a plastic problem

World Migratory Bird Day seeks local solutions to worldwide issue

By Cody Hooks
chooks@taosnews.com
Posted 5/16/19

Aside from predators and the natural risks of making such a journey, migratory birds also face a growing threat that's impacting bird populations worldwide: plastic pollution.

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Humans aren't the only species with a plastic problem

World Migratory Bird Day seeks local solutions to worldwide issue

Posted

Birds that migrate hundreds and thousands of miles across the continent are something incredible.

Take the sandhill cranes. Each year, some 20,000 of the birds winter along the banks of the Río Grande south of Socorro before flying over the western half of Taos County around February and March and on to the wet, marshy fields of Colorado's San Luis Valley, where they spend a month feasting and courting each other.

Eventually, they'll make their way north to Canada before doing the return trip back to the San Luis Valley, down the Río Grande gorge and eventually to their winter nesting spots.

"They travel these huge distances every year. It takes a lot of energy for these birds to do that and there's only so many places for them to stop over, to rest and refuel," said Ryan Besser, biologist with the Bureau of Land Management in Taos. "It's a really incredible journey," he said.

The problem

Aside from predators and the natural risks of making such a journey, migratory birds also face a growing threat that's impacting bird populations worldwide: plastic pollution.

"That's the big one," he said of the problem plastics pose to birds.

Birds, especially water birds, are vulnerable to the abundance of plastic in the environment. They can ingest small pieces of plastic -- including microplastics that are taken up by smaller fish and crustaceans and move up the food chain, building to toxic levels -- or get their feet, necks and wings caught up in plastic fishing line and six-pack holders.

It's an immediate threat in the local environment.

"Sadly, when I'm out photographing all the amazing birds in our area, there is no place where I don't see some sort of plastic pollution," said photographer Jim O'Donnell. "Ziploc bags, fishing line … It's everywhere," he said.

Fishing line is especially dangerous. Birds like the great blue heron or the black-crested night heron, both of which are found around Taos, are waders, sloshing around in shallow water to fish for their keep. But that puts them at risk of getting caught in a wad of the hair-thin, knotty plastic line.

"They get tangled in that and they're pretty much done for," Besser said.

When it comes to consuming plastic, it's estimated that upwards of 80 percent of sea and shorebirds have some type of plastic foam, thread or pellets in their digestive systems. "It's outrageous," Besser said.

And the problem is only getting worse.

Worldwide plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980, according to a recent U.N. report that noted more than 1 million plant and animal species are in danger of extinction in the coming decades because of human activity.

Awareness

For 2019, the organizers of World Migratory Bird Day are trying to bring the issue front and center through more than 700 educational programs across North, Central and South America.

The day of celebration and awareness for migratory birds started in 1993 as the International Migratory Bird Day.

"One of the main types of ... debris in the marine environment today is plastic," said Nancy Wallace, director of the marine debris program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in a press release.

"We know fishing gear, plastic bags, bottle caps, utensils and other plastic pieces are entangling and being ingested by birds. NOAA's Marine Debris Program is pleased to be partnering with World Migratory Bird Day this year to help raise awareness about plastic … and encourage people across the globe to be part of the solution," Wallace said.

Though World Migratory Bird Day was officially Saturday (May 11), Taos is celebrating this coming Saturday (May 18) with a number of events hosted by the Bureau of Land Management.

The BLM is hosting bird-watching walks in the morning. The walks begin at the Río Grande Gorge Visitor Center in Pilar, starting at 6:30 a.m. and 11 a.m.

Kids activities are happening at 8:30 a.m. and 11 a.m., when there will be a live raptor presentation by the folks (and birds) at the New Mexico Wildlife Center, based in Española.

Taking actions

To be part of the global solution to reduce the amount of plastics in the environment, Besser suggested "consciously making an effort" to cut back on petroleum-based materials "across the board."

One thing he's done in his own life it to make a commitment with his family to reduce plastic use significantly in their house.

"As a family, we sat down and said, 'We are going to do this and reduce plastic as much as we can.' If ketchup comes in glass and plastic, go for the glass," he said.

Other easy ways to eliminate plastics are to get your morning coffee in a reusable cup, taking your own reusable bags to the grocery store and doing the dishes at family get-togethers instead of buying stacks of foam trays and bags of plastic forks, he said.

"Just really think it through. People have a tendency to just keep pushing off these decisions," he said.

And when it comes to spending time along the banks of the Río Grande or another stream in Northern New Mexico, people should be extra-cautious of plastics. "If you're around any kind of waterway, that can get flushed into the ocean. It just gets worse if you're near water."

World Migratory Bird Day has a year-long calendar with tips for reducing plastic use in everyday life.

Visit migratorybirdday.org for more information about the history of the day and ways to help with conservation efforts.

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