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New Year's fireworks cause great distress for millions of birds

Millions of birds are negatively impacted by fireworks on New Year’s Eve, according to a new study from the University of Amsterdam. The research reveals a startling increase in the number of birds taking flight during these celebrations.

“We already knew that many water birds react strongly, but now we also see the effect on other birds throughout the Netherlands,” explained study lead author Bart Hoekstra. 

Acute flight response 

The research indicates that on New Year’s Eve, the number of birds in the air near fireworks sites is about 1,000 times higher than on typical nights, with peaks reaching between 10,000 to 100,000 times the normal count. 

The most substantial effects were observed within the first five kilometers of the fireworks, although impacts were still notable up to 10 kilometers away.

“Birds take off as a result of an acute flight response due to sudden noise and light. In a country like the Netherlands, with many wintering birds, we are talking about millions of birds being affected by the lighting of fireworks,” said Hoekstra.

This phenomenon leads to a significant energy drain for these birds, especially during the harsh winter months.

Lasting impacts

Last year, researchers at IBED discovered that geese are impacted by fireworks for more than a week. The study revealed that they spend an average of 10% longer looking for food for at least 11 days after the disturbance. 

The researchers said the geese apparently need that time to replenish the lost energy or to compensate for the unknown foraging area in which they have ended up, after fleeing from the fireworks.

Radar images

For the current study, the team used a new approach, combining data from weather radars and bird counts. The Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute’s weather radars provided insights during both clear and normal New Year’s Eves. 

The data was combined with bird count information from Sovon – the Dutch Centre for Field Ornithology, gathered by hundreds of volunteers. This dual approach allowed the researchers to accurately identify the species, number, and reaction distance of birds affected by fireworks.

“We already knew that many water birds react strongly, but it was still unclear how birds outside these water bodies react to fireworks. Through the counts we know exactly where which birds are and using the radar images we can see where they actually take off because of fireworks,” said Hoekstra.

Erratic flight behavior 

The study revealed that larger birds, such as geese, ducks, and gulls, not only take flight but also reach remarkable altitudes, flying around for hours. 

“Larger birds such as geese, ducks and gulls fly to a height of hundreds of meters due to the large-scale discharge of fireworks and remain in the air for up to an hour. There is a risk that they will end up in bad winter weather, or that they will not know where they are flying due to panic and accidents could occur.”

The researchers found that, in study areas around Den Helder and Herwijnen alone, almost 400,000 birds took flight immediately at the start of the New Year’s Eve fireworks.

Study implications 

Given that 62 percent of all birds in the Netherlands reside within 2.5 kilometers of inhabited areas, the implications of fireworks are far-reaching. 

“Flying requires a lot of energy, so ideally birds should be disturbed as little as possible during the cold winter months. Measures to ensure this are especially important in open areas such as grasslands, where many larger birds spend the winter,” said Hoekstra.

“The effects of fireworks on birds are less pronounced near forests and semi-open habitats. In addition, smaller birds such as tits and finches live there, which are less likely to fly away from disturbance.”

Buffer zones

The researchers advocate for the establishment of fireworks-free zones, particularly in areas populated by larger birds. 

“These buffer zones could be smaller in areas where light and sound travel less far, such as near forests. Furthermore, fireworks should mainly be lit at central locations in built-up areas, as far away from birds as possible,” said Hoekstra.

“It would be best for birds if we moved towards light shows without sound, such as drone shows or decorative fireworks without very loud bangs.”

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.


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