Trying to survive in a world made of plastic
Updated: May 9
By Staci-lee Sherwood
The will to survive can help a species hang on against what seems like insurmountable odds. The battle against plastic cannot be won since it’s found in everything. From our food and water to clothing and medical devices, plastic touches nearly every aspect of our lives. This is also true for wildlife. Years ago it was a rare sight to see birds using plastic to make their nests. Trash on beaches and along the road typically was mostly paper and food. There are bodies of water that have so much plastic you can barely see anything else.
Once plastic was invented everything changed as this miracle substance slowly made its way into every facet of life on earth. It’s estimated there is over 8 billion tons of plastic in the world. While some is recycled not nearly enough is. Much of the plastic we toss away ends up being ingested by marine animals, used in nests by birds or wrapped around the beaks and necks of unfortunate wildlife. A few years ago there was a video that went viral showing a swan in Amsterdam making a nest out of trash much of it plastic. This is the plague that keeps on giving since it takes somewhere between 20 – 500 years to decompose. The chemicals used to make plastic stay in the atmosphere forever.
A Belgian chemist, Leo Baekeland was the first to pioneer fully synthetic plastic in 1907. What was once considered a new goldmine is now one of the biggest plagues on earth, and one we will never be rid of. Despite all the pollution and clogged waterways we still use plastic for just about everything. Covid has now influenced how food is packaged. Loose fruit and vegetables is now packaged in plastic adding to the problem.
The tragic story of Annie the Anhinga
Annie, as I named her, was a female Anhinga with plastic wrapped around her beak. I had watched her and her mate build a nest and lay three eggs. After the chicks hatched the pair took turns feeding them. Chicks are very demanding and need constant tending to. The pair took turns hunting, feeding and cleaning the nest. Between the two adults it was still time consuming and required lots of energy.
When the chicks were 2 weeks old the mom went out one morning to find food but instead found plastic. She returned to the nest but didn't have any food for the hungry chicks. Pecking at her beak they begged for her to feed them and tried to bite the plastic hanging from her beak.
I snapped a photo of her and took it to the office of the nature center next door. Three rangers came out with nets and attempted to get her. After two hours of trying to catch her she was too spooked and flew away. We could see her trying to slide the plastic off by rubbing her beak on a rock and branches. You could sense her confusion and frustration. After a couple of hours that turned to desperation and she kept flying to different branches hoping to find the one that could free her beak.
The next day I spotted her far away from the nest with the plastic further back on her beak. This made it impossible for her to slide it off though she continued to try. After that day she was never seen again. Her mate tried to feed the three starving chicks who were growing and becoming more aggressive in asking for food.
Overwhelmed he could only feed the two larger stronger chicks. Without a partner it was just too much though he tried to feed all three for a couple of days. When it became apparent he couldn’t care for all three he stopped feeding the youngest and it was painful to watch the littlest chick beg for food that would never come.
After a week the littlest chick died and was pushed out of the nest. The remaining two survived and fledged. The scourge of plastic caused a family of five to end up a family of three. In the modern world this has become a daily occurrence though we rarely see it. Her life and death serve as a cautionary tale and we need to pay attention.
Annie the Anhinga
Goose Barnacles survive by attaching to a plastic bottle
A stark reality for marine life. Necropsies have shown that most seabirds and sea turtles have a stomach filled with plastic. Endangered Leatherback sea turtles feed on jellyfish. Plastic bags floating on the water look like a snack for them. A careless toss out the window can spell death for an unsuspecting animal.
In Florida it’s rare to see an Osprey nest that doesn’t have plastic bags
Micro plastic is everywhere and impossible to get rid of. Many shorebirds end up feeding their chicks tiny bits of plastic. The Sanderling pictured did not consume the plastic only because it was too big for him to swallow. Thinking it was food he did spend ten minutes trying to break it into smaller pieces to swallow. Thankfully the plastic was too hard break.
An increasing problem is plastic found wrapped around birds’ beaks. This lucky Sandhill Crane found help in removing the plastic but most do not.
A reminder that plastic is never far away no matter how remote the area is. A Least Tern chick barely out of the nest whose habitat is littered with plastic.
A simple thing to do that can save many lives
Ways to reduce plastic trash:
*Buy as much fruit and vegetables not wrapped in plastic. Farmers markets, food co-ops and smaller food markets are best for this.
*Reuse plastic bags to store things or for cat litter waste instead of buying new ones.
*Cut down on how many plastic trash bags you use by tossing food scraps into a compost.
Your garden will be naturally fertilized and healthier and you will use less trash bags.
*Pick up trash whenever you see it
*Join/organize weekly beach or park cleanups.
Also published on Emagazine April 12, 2022 https://emagazine.com/trying-to-survive-in-a-world-made-of-plastic/