Cigarettes Can Be Good for You—If You’re a Bird

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Along with discarded plastic of various kinds—plastic bags, drinking straws, fast-food containers, and the like—cigarette butts are one of the most widespread forms of trash in storm drains and waterways. They’re small enough to pass through many coarse filters, yet collectively they add up to tons of material—as much as 90,000 tons a year in the US, according to one estimate. Some of their components are toxic to aquatic life. They’ve even been singled out for clogging the spaces between pavers and preventing water from infiltrating as planned.

But for all that, they may have a surprising benefit to some species, and their very toxicity is part of it. Researchers in Mexico have demonstrated that certain birds deliberately seek out discarded cigarette butts for nesting material. Nests containing the butts are less likely to have blood-sucking parasites, which can harm newly hatched chicks.

As this article explains, the researchers weren’t sure at first whether city-dwelling birds actively sought the cigarette butts or whether they simply picked them up along with twigs and various man-made materials like electrical cable and aluminum foil, making use of whatever they encountered in the urban environment. So they devised an elaborate experiment, which involved introducing ticks into the nests of house finches whose eggs had just hatched.

After the baby birds had fledged, researchers collected and analyzed the nests’ linings. Nests into which they had placed either dead ticks or nothing at all contained no new cigarette butts. Those into which they’d placed live ticks, though, contained butts that the birds had recently collected, suggesting a pest-control strategy at work. SW_bug_web

Comments
  • Blue R Neils.

    This is interesting, but not terribly surprising… Tobacco, or rather the naturally occurring nicotine in the tobacco, is a natural and powerful insecticide…as are the tannins that are also found in high levels in tobacco. My guess is that the birds have learned to select the butts, at some point, and have passed it on to their progeny, thus spreading the behavior. If you think i am joking, check out the PBS/NOVA special “Bird Brain” (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/nature/bird-brain.html). Birds’ cognition and learning, but also their ability to share and/or observe and mimic successful behaviors is truly profound. Now, when someone calls me a “bird brain”, I will simply say “Thank You!”.

    Reply
  • Jonathan F.

    I think he title is misleading, particularly in regard to the negative impact cigarette butts have on fish, which I do know are not ‘birds’. Stomach analysis of out migrating salmon in the Seattle area showed that many smolts had ingested discarded cigarette butts, they apparently resemble food to the fish. Every fish that had ingested a butt had their stomach completely blocked, all were emaciated, with no food in the lower alimentary canal. Cigarettes not only kill smokers, many of the discarded butts are fish killers as well.

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