By Sharon Atieno

While plastic pollution poses serious risk to survival of wildlife globally, birds face a three-fold threat: entanglement in fishing gear and other plastic, ingestion and use of plastic in nests.

Of the 254 African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbird Agreement (AEWA)-listed bird species, 102 (40 percent) have been recorded to interact with waste plastics: 57 (22 percent) contain ingested plastic, 79 (31 percent) have been observed entangled in plastic debris and 20 (8 percent) use plastic items in their nests.

“One third of global plastic production is non-recyclable and at least eight million tonnes of plastic flows unabated into our oceans and water bodies each year,” Joyce Msuya, Acting Executive Director of UN Environment said in a press statement. “It is ending up in the stomachs of birds, fish, whales, and in our soil and water. The world is choking on plastic and so too are our birds on which so much life on earth depends.”

While most entanglements result from fishing gear (fishing line, netting), other items include: six-pack rings, balloon and kite strings, other string-like materials, plastic bags as well as miscellaneous ring-shaped items.

Of 265 bird species recorded entangled in plastic litter, at least 147 species were seabirds (36 per cent of all seabird species), 69 species freshwater birds (10 per cent) and 49 landbird species (0.5 per cent).

“Becoming entangled in fishing gear or plastic litter condemns birds to a slow, agonizing death” says Peter Ryan, Director of the Fitzpatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town.

Ingestion of plastic waste can affect large proportions of species and occurs in three ways: when birds mistake it for food, when it is ingested accidentally along with prey items or when it is contained within prey species. The ingested plastics kill birds by blocking or seriously injuring their digestive tract.

Marine ducks, divers, penguins, albatrosses, petrels, grebes, pelicans, gannets and boobies, gulls, terns, auks as well as tropic birds are particularly at risk.

The pollution on birds is so dire that, chemical additives from plastic were found in birds’ eggs in remote environments such as the Canadian Arctic.

Moreover, in the process of lining their nests, many birds pick up plastic mistaking it for leaves, twigs and other natural items, which can injure and trap fragile chicks. Birds such as gannets, cormorants, gulls are the most commonly affected.

Research shows that 90 percent of seabirds have plastic in their guts and if the issue is not addressed the number will increase to 99 percent by 2050. Several initiatives have come up in an attempt to reduce plastic pollution and save the birds.

The Clean Seas campaign launched by UN Environment is one attempt to address the issues of plastic pollution and ensure that birds don’t die due to ingestion and entanglement. The campaign targets marine pollution and calls upon individuals and groups of individuals to take concrete steps to reduce their own plastic footprints.

The Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) and AEWA also work with countries to prevent plastic items from entering the marine environment. A recent resolution on seabird conservation adopted by AEWA countries in December 2018, includes a series of actions countries can take to reduce the risk caused by plastic waste on migratory birds.

At the Conference of the Parties to the CMS in 2017, countries also agreed to address the issue of lost fishing gear, by following the strategies set out under the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Code of Conduct for responsible fisheries.

“There are no easy solutions to the plastic problem. It will require the joint efforts of governments, industry, municipalities, manufacturers and consumers to tackle the problem. However, as this year’s World Migratory Bird Day underlines – everybody on this planet can be part of the solution and take steps to reduce their use of single-use plastic.  Tackling this problem globally will not only be beneficial for us, but also benefit our planet’s wildlife, including millions of migratory birds,” said Jacques Trouvilliez, Executive Secretary of the AEWA.

On World Migratory Bird Day, celebrated on 11 May, two United Nations (UN) wildlife treaties and conservationists around the world are calling for urgent action to stop plastic pollution by highlighting its negative effects on seabirds and other migratory birds.

Plastic pollution is a serious and growing threat to migratory birds, which will only further limit their ability to deal with the much larger threat faced by climate change. Contact: