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Birding with Don Reimer: Perspectives—

My friend John once shared an experience that illustrates how individual perspectives can shape and drive our decision-making process. After living outside the state for several years, John and his wife contemplated where they would permanently settle — maybe build a house somewhere in Maine? John was raised near the Pemaquid River in Bristol, spending his boyhood fishing and exploring the local riverbanks; his wife grew up in a compact big-city environment. One spring afternoon, the couple stood at the edge of the Pemaquid to survey a potential wooded house lot. To punctuate the visit for John, a fat trout broke the water surface, rising airborne to devour an insect! “Wow,” thought John, “this is a definite sign that we should purchase this incredible property!” Meanwhile his wife stood silently. What were her thoughts? “Just get me out of this dismal bug-infested wilderness!” Needless to say, they located elsewhere.

Today’s world is full of conflicting perceptions on so many fronts. And with competing political and social doctrines in play these days, spheres of public opinion are increasingly split. This trend often blurs the lines between facts and fiction.

Let’s consider the effects of plastic waste products in the natural environment as a matter of public interest. And plastics that end up in ocean habitats have yet added consequences. In 1907, a Belgian inventor created the first plastic substances through synthesizing phenol and formaldehyde. In 1953 high-density polyethylene (No. 2 plastic) came into gradual use in plastic grocery bags. By the end of 1985, 75 percent of supermarkets were offering plastic bags. Plastic products of all types now abound to serve modern society’s needs. Management and responsible disposal of these materials appear to be the real crux of a deepening dilemma.

Gazing onto Atlantic waters, the ocean appears to be a clean, limitless blue expanse, but satellite images reveal a different picture. Unfortunately, “one-time use” plastic items and other forms of hard plastics find their way into world oceanways. Much of this plastic waste accumulates in five swirling global ocean currents known as gyres (North and South Atlantic, North and South Pacific and Indian Ocean). Technically, these immense trash vortexes (one is double the size of the state of Texas) are big enough to warrant several ZIP codes. Plastics constitute about 90 percent of these floating garbage patches.

The plaguing issue involves marine animals that ingest plastic debris, mistaking it for food. Sea turtles, seabirds, fish and whales are species of greatest concern. A recent example was a 31-foot sperm whale washed ashore on the Indian Ocean coastline. With 13 pounds of plastic in its stomach, the list of contents included 115 plastic cups, 4 plastic bottles, 25 plastic bags, 2 flip-flops, a nylon sack and 1,000 other assorted pieces of plastic. Plastics eventually break down, releasing chemical compounds that impact animals’ ability to feed and reproduce. Despite some futile efforts at large-scale cleanups, these sites are rapidly expanding.

Are things any better as birds encounter plastics on the dry land? For folks who spend time observing birds, we routinely see plastic remnants in nesting structures of ospreys and a wide variety of common songbirds such as robins and brown thrashers. After all, birds are mobile creatures with relatively large brains capable of problem solving and adapting to modest habitat changes. In urban settings, where natural building materials may be in shorter supply, birds often modify their nests with man-made materials. Dry leaves, mosses and grasses may be exchanged for pieces of plastic bags, tinsel, paper or aluminum foil. Strips of electric cable, string or rope may replace wooden nesting sticks. In what category should we place these industrious birds — fortunate survivors or successful exploiters of their surroundings?