Bhutan’s plastic waste, a threat to birds

|      Choki Wangmo      |

THIMPHU (Kuensel/ANN) – From bottle caps, toys, old clothes, chocolate wrappers, biscuit and noodle plastics, juice straws, used diapers and more litter the woods of Taba in Thimphu.

Flocks of birds feed on these waste but little is known about its impact on the birds.

A forester and birder Sherab Jamtsho said that in Bhutan, although waste along rivers and streams – habitat for birds is a major concern, the lack of scientific data makes it difficult to measure the disturbance.

The recent reinforcement of the plastic ban is an encouragement for birders in the country. Members of Birds of Bhutan do not believe that life in the skies would keep the birds safe from the dangers of plastic waste.

Several birders in the country reported threats of plastic waste on birds increasing over the years. “The habitat grounds are filled with plastic waste,” said birder Kelzang Dorji.

Founder of Birds of Bhutan Tshering Tobgay said that from a distance, birders often mislead colourful plastic waste for birds. “Plastic waste is common in the bushes and rivers.”

According to the birders, along with habitat pollution, entanglement and ingestion of plastic are one of the leading causes of death among birds.

Life in the skies would not keep the birds safe from the dangers of plastic waste. – KUENSEL/ANN

Tshering Tobgay said the evidence of negative impact of plastic wastes is observed in urban streams, where the numbers of bird species has drastically dropped once the area gets polluted.

“Black-tailed Crake, a common species in the marshes and streams in the past is a rare sight in Bhutan now,” he said.

He also said plastic waste induce physiological changes in birds. “Lower altitude birds like house crows and common Mynas are now commonly seen at higher elevations.”

Birder Tshering Dorji believes Bhutan’s natural primary forest would keep the habitat safe but without initiatives, mounting plastic waste is a challenge in the long run.

One Green Planet reported that the large pieces of plastic break down under UV light into smaller pieces on which the birds feed. Some birds are found to die from ingestion of sharp plastic whereas others starve to death.

On why birds ingest plastic, Tshering Tobgay said plastic waste comprise mostly of food wrappers with a smell of food that attracts the birds.

The plastic in the rivers and streams are covered by algae and water plants and the birds mistake it for food.

Although waste is a growing problem across the country, Tshering Dorji said rural areas are cleaner and birds are adapted to their natural habitat. “As plastic waste is easily found in urban areas, the birds tend to go for easy food resources. It affects their plumage,” he said.

According to him, both common and rare species are vulnerable to the impacts of plastic waste. “For instance, varieties of Laughingthrush, rare Pheasants such as Tragopan, Blood pheasants and Monals are at risk,” he said. “The birds usually feed on leftover packaged foods which are damaging the natural habit of feeding in nature.”

The migratory water birds are more vulnerable to plastic waste, Tshering Tobgay said. The birds rely on wetlands and large rivers for feeding ground during migration. When the grounds are polluted, they feed on plastics. The hatchlings die before completing their life cycle.

“Plastic ingestion disrupts the whole ecosystem through bio-magnification,” he said.

Bio-magnification is a concentration of toxins in an organism as a result of ingesting other plants or animals in which the toxins are more widely disbursed.

Meanwhile, Birder Chencho Wangdi said, “Crows are scavengers and feed on kitchen waste but I have seen crows feed on addictive noodle seasonings now.” He said that crows no longer feed on ritual cakes as was seen in the past.

He attributes the decline in crow population to urbanisation and climate change.

World Wildlife Fund reported that birds are at the risk of toxic effects of chemical that coats plastics.

Till date, Bhutan had recorded 740 bird species.