Face masks are confusing birds worldwide, with plastic pollution now affecting bird populations on every continent, new research shows.
Online social science project, Birds and Debris, collects photographs from around the world of birds nesting or entangled in debris.
Almost a quarter of the images taken show birds caught in personal protective equipment (PPE), and most are disposable masks, the researchers said.
The project, which is run by researchers at the Environmental Research Institute, part of both North Highland College UHI, and the University of the Highlands and Islands, has been ongoing for four years.
Recent reports to the project include a herring gull flying near John o’Groats with a black plastic bag hanging from its foot, a bird’s nest near Bogota, Columbia containing plastic string, and a dead gray heron in Mauritania with a fishing net around its beak. .
Dr Alex Bond, one of the researchers involved in the project from the Natural History Museum in London, said human waste affecting birdlife was a “global problem”.
“Once you start looking for these things, you’ll see it everywhere,” he told the BBC.
“We had reports from Japan, Australia, Sri Lanka, Great Britain, North America.”
Since its launch, the site has had over 400 reports of either entanglement or nest incorporation of debris. In a study, published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, researchers examined 114 reports containing PPE and found that the majority (95) were birds that had entangled or incorporated the pandemic waste into their nests.
The majority of sightings were in the United States (29), England (16), Canada (13) and Australia (11), but images from 23 different countries, including Germany, France, Finland, India and Italy, were also included.
“It’s almost all masks,” Dr Bond said.
“And if you think about the different materials a surgical mask is made of – there’s the elastic that we see wrapped around the birds’ legs, or we can see birds injured by trying to swallow the fabric or the hard piece of plastic that secures it over your nose.
“So we use this collective term ‘plastic’, but there’s a whole range of different polymers, and masks are a good example of that.”
Of 114 reported sightings, 106 (93 percent) were face masks, according to the study published in the journal Science of the Total Environment.
Estimates have suggested that 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves were used monthly at the height of the pandemic globally.
The majority of disposable face masks are made of plastic that cannot be biodegraded, but can be broken down into microplastics that spread into the environment.
Previous research has suggested that 1.6 billion disposable masks ended up in the ocean in 2020.
Other debris included disposable gloves, in one case gloves and face masks were entangled in a nest, the authors said.
Nine animals were found dead in direct contact with the PPE, but most of the animals’ fates were unknown because observers could not capture them to remove the litter.
More than four-fifths (83 per cent) of sightings were of birds, with whooper swans, herring gulls, Australian white ibis, red kites and coots the most recorded.
The authors concluded: “Despite the termination of mask mandates across different regions of the world, billions of single-use pandemic-related debris items that were not managed during Covid will remain in our terrestrial and aquatic environments for decades to come.
“It is therefore necessary to learn from this event, and consider the full impact that plastic waste from the pandemic has had on our global fauna and environment.
“It is critical that we identify opportunities to improve our waste management infrastructure so that we can prevent similar leaks during inevitable future pandemics.”
The researchers said the first sighting of a bird entangled in a face mask was in April 2020 in Canada, and sightings “internationally cascaded” since.
Members of the public are encouraged to take part in the project by uploading photos of birds or nests entangled in debris.
“If you don’t have a picture, describe what you saw. Keep an eye out for entangled birds that wash up on the beach. Or look for debris in nests when you visit a seabird colony or local pond, or when you clean out your nest boxes,” the researchers said.
They also encourage people to report injured or entangled birds to a local veterinarian or animal welfare organization.