Monday, March 18, 2013


This month, while only half past, has been trashed with deadlines, cramped schedules, illness, and injury, all of which add up to keep me pinned down and unable to venture far from home for the wonders of early spring birding. Nonetheless, I've enjoyed visits in the backyard - the moody glare of the sharp-shinned hawk, a brief appearance by one of my California quail, the incessant demands of the western scrub-jays, and other familiar guests - and also enjoyed short neighborhood walks.

What is not enjoyable, however, is finding litter along the way, and one piece in particular caught my eye at the end of last month. A dash of pink in a muddy gutter caught my eye, and the first day I saw it I didn't think much of it. A couple of days later, however, it was still there, and I recognized it for the threat it is - a latex balloon. Oh, the pink color sprinkled with quaint white hearts may seem innocuous, but it got me thinking... In the late winter when fruits and flowers are scarce but migrant birds are returning with hungry appetites after their long migration, how might such a tempting morsel look to them?

A dash of pink might look like a tasty nectar flower, or the ripe flesh of a sweet fruit. In a wet and muddy gutter, it might seem to be a succulent worm, or an industrious bird might see it as a useful bit of nesting material.

A balloon is none of these things, however, but it is a grave threat to birds. It is a toxic piece of litter that can clog a bird's digestive tract, gradually starving them as they are unable to take in more food with a litter-filled stomach. It can stifle nestlings and get tangled among the legs of brooding adults, and the abrasive nature of the material can cause sores.

This one balloon, at least, is no more of a threat, however. On that second walk when it caught my eye again, after I'd walked past and it sunk into my consciousness what that pink, squidgy splotch in the gutter really was, I walked back and picked it up, carrying it all the way home to dispose of in a tightly tied trash back and heavy plastic garbage can, well out of reach of any curious birds.

What litter have you picked up along a birding walk? Every scrap you might collect can be helpful in preserving the habitats you enjoy the most, so take a plastic bag along on your next birding walk and do the birds a favor!

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