South Carolina development hurts local bird populations
AP

South Carolina development hurts local bird populations

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CONWAY, S.C. (AP) — Thousands of gulls and dozens of bald eagles have gathered at the Horry County Landfill to pick through tons of tossed-out food, garbage bags and seafood scraps from Myrtle Beach’s restaurants and subdivisions.

This abundance of food waste has become a massive wintertime feeding ground, sustaining birds native to South Carolina and as far away as Iceland through the colder months.

But not all birds have found a benefit from the expanse of human development in Horry County. Overall populations of bird species are declining nationwide due, in part, to changes in how humans use land.

South Carolina Department of Natural Resources Biologist Felicia Sanders said losing a key part of an ecosystem can have a lot of consequences and be indicative of larger problems for the environment.

“They’re sentinels for the decline of an environment,” she said. “There is so much we don’t understand when you get rid of a whole part of a system. Some things may collapse that we don’t expect.”

It is known that birds do a lot for humans including killing insects, pest control and cleaning up dead animal bodies. In the 20th century declining bird populations shined light on the health affects of DDT and other pesticides.

Chris Hill is an ecologist with Coastal Carolina University, where he studies how birds interact with habitats around them. As humans change the world — through landfills, chemicals, pollution, developments or roadways — the bird population will respond, he said. Sometimes the human impact can be beneficial to a species, often it’s negative or somewhere in between.

He keeps count of the birds, particularly the gulls, at the landfill. He stops in a few times a year to see how many birds are there and to look for gulls that are rare in this region, like gulls from California or Iceland.

“There are some species that have never been seen in South Carolina, but they’re always on my radar. You never know what to expect,” Hill said.

The gulls will only spend about 15 minutes a day eating, picking through plastic and debris to get leftovers from human meals. For the rest of the day, they stick around and preen, while avoiding the heavy machinery.

Hill thinks it’s incredible how birds have turned human’s waste into a new food source.

“Ten thousand gulls are out here picking all the food waste out and recycling it themselves,” he said.

While wildlife digesting plastics remains a concern, gulls have used the landfill to their advantage. Where some species have adapted to an ever-growing list of human neighbors, others have faced challenges due to fewer natural spaces to call home.

Last year, Cornell University Researcher Ken Rosenberg wrote an article showing a decline of more than a quarter of bird populations since the 1970s, meaning there are millions fewer birds in the sky than just a few decades ago.

Rosenberg’s research suspects that “human-altered landscapes” are becoming less inclusive to bird life.

For Saunders’ work specifically on the American Oystercatcher, there has been a dramatic decline in the species population.

Declines in bird populations in eastern South Carolina could have a lot of causes and determining exactly what’s happening will require further research. Sanders said it is possibly related to a decline in quality habitats for certain species, cats and pollution.

“Especially coastal birds are suffering from just human interactions,” Sanders said. “There are just too many people for the birds to stand a chance to find food and rest on the beach.”

Specifically looking at South Carolina, she said more research needs to be done to determine just how many birds have been lost in the area and what that will mean for the rest of the environment.

More research would help experts better understand the scope of the problem and potential solutions. For now, Sanders said everyone can do their part by reducing their waste, using reusable bags and properly disposing of your trash.

“And please observe posted signs for bird sanctuaries,” she said.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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