Face masks are entangling birds across the world, with plastic pollution now affecting bird populations on every continent, new research shows.
The online citizen science project, Birds and Debris, is collecting photographs from around the world of birds nesting or tangled up in litter.
Nearly a quarter of the photos taken show birds trapped in personal protective equipment (PPE), the majority being disposable face masks, the researchers said.
The project, run by researchers at the Environmental Research Institute, part of North Highland College UHI and the University of the Highlands and Islands, has been underway for four years.
Recent reports for the project include a seagull flying near John o’Groats with a black plastic bag dangling from its foot, a bird’s nest near Bogotá, Columbia containing plastic rope, and a dead heron in Mauritania with a fishing net. curled up in its beak.
Alex Bond, one of the researchers involved in the Natural History Museum London project, said human debris that affects bird wildlife is a “global issue”.
“When you start looking for these things, you see them 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 entanglement or incorporation of debris into the nest. In one study, published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, researchers examined 114 reports containing PPE and found that the majority (95) were from birds entangled or incorporating the pandemic waste into their nests.
Most of the sightings took place in the US (29), England (16), Canada (13) and Australia (11), but photos from 23 different countries were also included, including Germany, France, Finland, India and Italy.
“It’s almost all masks,” Bond said.
“And if you think about the different materials a surgical mask is made of – there’s the rubber band we see wrapped around the legs of birds or we can see injured birds trying to ingest the fabric or the hard piece of plastic that holds it to their nose. .
“So we use that umbrella term of ‘plastic’, but it’s a whole range of different polymers, and masks are a good example of that.”
Of the 114 reported sightings, 106 (93%) were face masks, according to the study published in the journal Science of the Total Environment.
Estimates suggest that 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves were used monthly at the height of the pandemic worldwide.
Most disposable face masks are made from plastic that cannot be biodegraded but can break down into microplastics that scatter in the environment.
Previous research has suggested that 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 tangled up in a nest, the authors said.
Nine animals were found dead in direct contact with PPE, but most of the animals’ fates were unknown because observers were unable to capture them to take out the trash.
More than four-fifths (83 percent) of sightings were of birds, with mute swans, gulls, Australian white ibis, red kites and Eurasian coots the most commonly recorded.
The authors concluded: “Despite the end of mask mandates in different regions of the world, the billions of disposable items of pandemic-related debris poorly managed 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 fauna and global environments.
“It is crucial that we identify opportunities to improve our waste management infrastructure so that we can prevent similar spills during the inevitable future pandemics.”
The researchers said the first sighting of a bird tangled in a face mask was in April 2020 in Canada, and the sightings have “triggered internationally” since then.
Members of the public are encouraged to participate in the project by submitting images of birds or nests tangled with debris.
“If you don’t have a picture, describe what you saw. Keep an eye out for birds trapped on the beach. Or look for debris in the nests when visiting a seabird colony or a local lake, or when cleaning their nest boxes,” the researchers said.
They also encourage people to report injured or entangled birds to a local veterinarian or animal welfare charity.