Covid face masks 'devastating' bird populations all over the world

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Researchers involved in the project said that the pollution entangling birds across the world was 'almost all masks' - Bournemouth News & Picture Service
Researchers involved in the project said that the pollution entangling birds across the world was 'almost all masks' - Bournemouth News & Picture Service

Face masks are entangling birds across the world, with plastic pollution is now affecting avian populations across every continent, new research shows.

The online citizen science project, Birds and Debris, is collecting photographs from around the world of birds nesting or entangled in waste.

Nearly a quarter of the photos taken show birds caught up in personal protective equipment (PPE), with the majority being disposable face masks, the researchers said.

The project, run by researchers at the Environmental Research Institute, part of both the North Highland College UHI, and the University of the Highlands and Islands, has been running for four years.

Recent reports to the project include a Herring Gull flying near John o’Groats with a black plastic bag hanging from its foot, a bird nest near Bogota, Columbia containing plastic string, and a dead Grey Heron in Mauritania with fish netting wrapped around its beak.

The majority of disposable face masks are made from plastic which cannot biodegrade - Chris Grubb
The majority of disposable face masks are made from plastic which cannot biodegrade - Chris Grubb

Dr Alex Bond, one of the researchers involved in the project from the Natural History Museum in London, said human debris impacting avian wildlife is a “global issue”.

"When you start looking for this stuff, you'll see it everywhere," he told the BBC.

“We had reports from Japan , Australia, Sri Lanka, the UK, North America.”

Since its launch the site has had over 400 reports of either entanglement or nest incorporation of debris. In a study, published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, the researchers examined 114 reports containing PPE and found the majority (95) were of birds entangled or incorporating the pandemic waste into their nests.

The majority of sightings were in the US (29), England (16), Canada (13) and Australia (11), but photos from 23 different countries, including Germany, France, Finland, India and Italy, were also included.

"It's almost all masks," Dr Bond said.

"And if you think of the different materials a surgical mask is made from - there's the elastic that we see tangled around birds' legs or we might see birds injured by trying to ingest the fabric or the hard piece of plastic that secures it over your nose.

"So we use this catch-all term of 'plastic' but it's a whole range of different polymers, and masks are a good example of that."

Of 114 sightings reported, 106 (93 per cent) were facemasks, according to the study published in the journal Science of the Total Environment.

Gannets in Norway nesting in plastic ropes and fishing gear - Simon J Pierce
Gannets in Norway nesting in plastic ropes and fishing gear - Simon J Pierce

Estimates have suggested 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves were used monthly at the height of the pandemic globally.

The majority of disposable face masks are made from plastic which cannot biodegrade, but may break down into microplastics that spread into the environment.

Previous research has suggested 1.6 billion disposable masks ended up in the ocean in 2020.

Other debris included disposable gloves, in one case gloves and face masks were entangled in a nest, the authors said.

Nine animals were found dead in direct contact with PPE, but the majority of fates of the animals were unknown because the observers could not capture them to remove the rubbish.

Common coot (Fulica atra) on nest built from rubbish, Amsterdam, Netherlands - 2FKMETH
Common coot (Fulica atra) on nest built from rubbish, Amsterdam, Netherlands - 2FKMETH

More than four fifths (83 per cent) of the sightings were of birds, with mute swans, herring gulls, Australian white ibis, red kites and Eurasian coots the most commonly recorded.

The authors concluded: “Despite the termination of mask mandates across different regions of the world, the billions of disposable pandemic-related debris items mismanaged during Covid will remain in our terrestrial and aquatic environments for decades to come.

“Therefore, it is necessary to learn from this event, and assess the full impact that plastic waste from the pandemic has had on our global fauna and environments.

“It is crucial that we identify opportunities to improve our waste management infrastructure, so that we can prevent similar leakages during the inevitable future pandemics.”

The researchers said the first sighting of a bird tangled in a facemask was April 2020 in Canada, and sightings “internationally cascaded” since.

Members of the public are encouraged to take part in the project by uploading images of birds or nests entangled with debris.

“If you have no image, describe what you saw. Keep an eye out for entangled birds washed up on the beach. Or look out for debris in nests when you visit a seabird colony or local pond, or when you clear out your nest boxes,” the researchers said.

They also encourage people to report injured or entangled birds to a local vet or animal welfare charity.

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