Thursday, March 24, 2016

Humans Affinity For Junk Food Rubs Off On Bird Population

By now, each of us is used to reading in the popular news about the 'unhealthy' eating habits of humans around the world.  In some countries, the obesity problem is progressing more quickly compared to others.  Regardless, generally speaking, the eating habits of humans around the world is not great.  Wow, did I really just say that generalization?  Yes.  Whether the eating habits can be defined as consuming too much fat based food, or whether that means consuming too less food (food sources are scarce), the problem is still present.  Now that we have this broad definition, you might be wondering why I speak of eating habits that are really amplified in the popular news on a daily basis (over and over again - right?).

Birds Take On Bad Habits?

The reason why is that our eating habits have now caused a certain bird population in a given geographical region to take on the same bad behaviors.  Yes, we are used to reading the same typical headline like the following from ScienceDaily news regarding health titled "US Adults Get Failing Grade In Lifestyle Behavior."  As conveyed in the article, health is not just attributed to keeping a 'healthy diet.'  There are more components along with the expected message:

In this study, researchers from Oregon State University and the University of Mississippi examined how many adults succeed in four general barometers that could help define healthy behavior: a good diet, moderate exercise, a recommended body fat percentage and being a non-smoker. It's the basic health advice, in other words, that doctors often give to millions of patients all over the world.

According to the study, only 2.7 percent of participants actually scored 'good' in all four areas.  Which means that only 2.7 percent were 'non-smokers' who kept a good diet with moderate exercise and have a body fat percentage that falls within the range of 'healthy' -- according to their weight and height.  This should be alarming to say the least.  Time for a wake up call.  No wonder there are such terrible cardiovascular disease statistics throughout various populations.

Against this backdrop is the emerging health issues with a specific bird population.  Yes, a bird population (specific bird) -- Storks.  More specifically, the European 'White Stork' -- whose picture is shown below:

Photo by Thomas Bresson

According to an editorial in 'The New York Times' titled "Elegant Bird Discovers Junk Food," a study was conducted by Dr. Aldina Franco, of the University of Anglia in England, into the changing migration pattern of storks  -- due to the existing 'dumps' in the flight path.  Here is an excerpt from the article in the 'Times':

A new study shows that the glorious annual migration of white storks from Europe to Africa is being disrupted by the birds’ growing addiction to junk food in the garbage dumps below their flight path. Thousands no longer make the crossing for the winter, preferring to build year-round nests at rubbish pits in Spain and Portugal where they conserve energy and have an easier time breeding and defending their nests.

The storks have learned to feast on readily available hamburger fragments, pizza scraps and assorted leftovers from overfed humans, rather than fly thousands of miles more for their traditional diet of frogs, beetles and grasshoppers in sub-Saharan Africa.

I was quite amazed upon my first read.  Then, I started thinking about previous trips to the dumps in the past by myself.  I do remember seeing birds swirling looking for food.  This is natural for them -- given the opportunity.  What stands out is the observation in the study that the overall migration pattern changed due to the dumps.  Again, from the article:

The change in storks’ migration was pinned down by GPS devices attached to four dozen birds, showing how upward of 14,000 of them now stay all winter at Portuguese dumps where there were none 30 years ago.
The birds preferred the Iberian Peninsula route because there are stronger updrafts over land than over the Mediterranean, making the long flight to Africa safer and less laborious. The trip became a good deal less arduous for those birds that spotted fields of fast food en route.

Not only are they changing their migration pattern, they are literally accumulating at the waste sites.  There must be good 'scraps' of food that are enticing them to stay for the entire duration rather than move on.  Although, based on our own eating habits, cheap and easy (fast food) is the path of 'least resistance' (low barrier of energy toward eating).  Therefore, who can blame them.

Birds Don't Distinguish Between Healthy And Unhealthy Food!

What is fascinating to me about this article and study was that the implication that the storks could distinguish between health and unhealthy food.  Actually, the availability of food was the major motivation in the case storks and their flight path.  Why travel thousands of miles to get food, when there is some food along the way?  Why would I wait to get to my mother's house to eat (which is an hour drive) if I could eat along the way?  Well, in that case, the second question would be -- why am I going to my mother's house?  Maybe I am going there to eat a family meal.

In the case of the birds, there could be a follow up study regarding the types of food eaten by the bird? I guess that I should read the study further and see if the answer to my question resides in the results.  I suspect that the food choices of the storks resemble that of my 8 year old Poodle/Maltese dog - Edna.  When she was small, she would escape our apartment and run directly for the trash dumpster.  She would then consume as much leftovers as she could before either of us (my wife and I) could catch her.  Then, she would throw up the food consumed upon entering our apartment.  What lovely memories.  We are glad those days are over.


Birds will flock toward the closest food source.  The fact that the birds do not complete their migration trip is disconcerting and of concern from a health standpoint.  The last result of such behavior that is needed is to pick up a disease from the decay within the dump.  Therefore, the action on behalf of the European Union to change protocol of storing trash at a dump site makes sense.

Who would have thought that such a parameter would arise in the equation of planning the construction of a dump site?  I guess, based on scientific research -- a new parameter has to be taken into account.  From now on, each planning committee will not only have to have a traditional 'Environmental Impact Report (EPI),' but now an EPI with the inclusion of bird flight paths due to migration patterns.  One more concern to include into the planning stages.

The next time that you go to throw food or waste away, think of the potential impact of the birds flying over you.  There is more to consider than just your health -- that of the storks.  Be mindful of nature.  Maybe just move toward 'composting bins'?  Have a great day!

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