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Published on : 22nd December 2017

How Air Pollution Affects Birds

Air Pollution from a power plant

Global air pollution is worsening at an alarming rate. In 2016, a report stated that, in just five years, outdoor air pollution increased by 8% worldwide. The places most affected by this are cities in developing countries such as those in Asia and the Middle East. Although the air quality in the UK isn’t as hazardous as those in developing countries, our air pollution affects British wildlife. It regularly fails to meet the safe limit set by the government as well as the World Health Organisation (WHO). What’s more surprising is that poor air quality isn’t just concentrated in highly urbanised areas; it’s also affecting small towns and rural parts of the country.

What’s causing the poor quality of air in the UK? It is mainly due to transport emissions. Since 2010, the level of nitrogen oxide pollution has been surpassing what’s legally acceptable. When it comes to nitrogen oxide pollution, vehicles running on diesel are largely to blame. So far, the number of diesel cars on the road are on the rise with statistics showing that six of the 10 cars sold in the country run on diesel.

Poor air quality has serious effects on the economy and human population. In recent years, several cities in China, including its capital Beijing, closed down schools and roads (even factories) because air quality reached hazardous levels. Reports indicate that China’s air pollution problem is hurting its GDP. It is declining by 6.5% annually mainly because of lost productivity due to the closure of business facilities as well as employees getting sick.

Aside from its effects on the economy, air pollution threatens people’s lives, too. It increases their risk of having diseases such as asthma and other respiratory illnesses, heart disease and cancer, among others. Furthermore, poor air quality shortens people’s life expectancy. In fact, air pollution is said to kill more people now than HIV/AIDS and malaria, with records showing that it is responsible for 3 million deaths each year.

Indeed, the effects of air pollution on people and the economy are concerning. However, let’s not forget that these are not just the things affected by poor air quality. Plants and animals are suffering as well.

Flight of birds

Effects Of Air Pollution On Birds

There are around 10,000 species of birds distributed in different parts of the world. In the UK, the British Trust for Ornithology lists over 500 avian species including the near threatened meadow pipit  often seen at Holkham Hall & Estate. As of 2016, there are over 400 listed endangered species of birds. Different things are causing the decline in the number of some bird species; one of them is said to be air pollution.

Air pollution comes from different sources and each pollutant has a different effect on birds. The most common air pollutant is carbon monoxide which is caused by the burning of gasoline, natural gas, coal, oil. This pollutant leads to the abnormal breathing of birds as it directly affects their nervous system.

Sulphur dioxide is another pollutant which is caused by the burning of sulphur-containing fuels as well as coal and oil. Industrial processes done in factories including paper manufacturing and metal smelting also cause sulphur dioxide. Sulphur dioxide impairs the immune system of birds and makes them vulnerable to diseases. Moreover, the emissions from coal plants also decrease their erythrocytes or red blood cells.

In the 1990s, a study was conducted in Finland in an area surrounding a copper smelter complex. The findings of the study indicated that the industrial site exposed birds not only to sulphur dioxide but also to heavy metals including copper, lead and nickel. This resulted in birds laying much fewer eggs. Apart from that, it had an additional negative side effect in pied flycatchers which was a decrease in the hatching success of their eggs.

Pied Flycatcher

VOC’s or Volatile Organic Compounds are pollutants that come from fuel combustion, paints and solvents. VOC’s cause another pollutant, ozone. In birds, ozone causes several physiological changes which include the shortening of the cilia in the lungs. The function of the cilia in animals is to filter the air further in the lungs. With shortened cilia, birds’ lungs become more prone to diseases.

In the urban areas, smoke causes chemical and thermal damage to birds’ lungs. It also increases their susceptibility to infections like pulmonary edema or dyspnea. Getting exposed to high levels of urban air pollution also causes an increase in concentrations of toxins in their vital organs.

Air pollution doesn’t just affect the health of birds; it also alters their habitats. Industrial emissions can affect the plants and invertebrates in places where birds reside. This may result in a decline in food supply and food intake. Low food intake or failure to eat the nutrients they need can lead to less vibrant plumage and lower reproductive success.

Additionally, air pollution can change the structure of the forests, including making tree canopies thinner. This is another problem for birds as the absence of thick canopies make them more visible and vulnerable to predators. To prevent this from happening, birds may tend to spend less time foraging for food. In the long run, scarcity in the food supply may cause birds to leave their homes and settle elsewhere.

Admittedly, the body of research on the effects of air pollution on birds is scarce. More studies must be conducted for everyone to gain an in-depth understanding of how poor air quality is hurting the avian population. In the meantime, given what is known, everyone must do their share to reduce air pollution.

In the UK, where diesel car users are abundant, citizens, even those in non-urban areas, are encouraged to use bicycles and mass transport more frequently. At the same time, there are calls for the government to establish more walking and cycling routes as well as provide better public transport. Hopefully, if these measures are observed, the country may be able to eradicate or minimise nitrogen oxide pollution in the country.


Air Pollution from a power plant

Image Attribution: By Oleg Savitsky (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Image Resource:

Pied Flycatcher

Image Attribution: By Steve Garvie from Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland (Pied Flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca)) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Image Resource:

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