It is well-documented that seabirds mistake plastic and other small bits of human waste for food. If you haven’t seen them, images of albatrosses that died because they consumed so much garbage are heartbreaking and horrifying.
Now, we have another type of waste to combat: rubber bands.
Rangers from the National Trust in the United Kingdom say a gull colony on an uninhabited island is littered with thousands of elastic bands. They determined that Great Black-backed and Herring Gulls, while feeding in agricultural fields on the mainland, mistake the bands for worms and eat them. Then they return to the island, where they regurgitate them at roosting sites.
The rangers made the discovery on Mullion Island, a small, rocky outpost off the Lizard Peninsula, on the southwestern coast of the U.K. The island is cared for by the National Trust, providing a sanctuary for nesting gulls, cormorants, and shags.
Experts monitoring the site found thousands of tan, yellow, and green bands among pellets regurgitated by the birds. It is believed the bands may have originated from agricultural fields where they are used to tie together bunches of cut flowers.
A long list of challenges
Small bundles of green fishing net and twine were also uncovered among the undigested food, likely mistaken by the gulls for tasty morsels floating on the surface of the sea.
“Ingested plastic and rubber is another factor in a long list of challenges which our gulls and other seabirds must contend with just to survive,” said Rachel Holder, Area Ranger for the National Trust. “Despite being noisy and boisterous and seemingly common, gulls are on the decline. They’re already struggling with changes to fish populations and disturbance to nesting sites — and eating elastic bands and fishing waste does nothing to ease their plight.
“Places like Mullion Island should be sanctuaries for our seabirds, so it’s distressing to see them become victims of human activity.”
Mark Grantham from the West Cornwall Ringing Group which discovered the bands, said: “We first noticed the bands on a monitoring visit during the breeding season and were puzzled why there were so many and how they’d got there.
“To save disturbing the nesting birds, we made a special trip over in the autumn to clear the litter. Within just an hour we’d collected thousands of bands and handfuls of fishing waste.
“The gull breeding season was disappointingly poor in 2019 and these hidden human pressures are doing nothing to help our seabirds.”
The Trust is calling on businesses to consider how they dispose of plastic, latex, and other materials that could cause harm to wildlife.
Lizzy Carlyle, head of environmental practices at the National Trust, said: “Single-use materials are having an alarming impact on our country’s most remote places. It’s up to all of us to take responsibility for how we use and dispose of these items – whether we’re producers or consumers.”