On the 2nd of July 1776, the Founding Fathers declared that the thirteen existing colonies were now united, independent, and free of colonial rule by the British. Two days later, the Second Continental Congress ratified the Declaration of Independence, thus establishing the United States of America. It’s fair to say a huge party then took place as it has done ever since for almost 250 years. One party accompaniment that is exceedingly popular are fireworks, whose dazzling array of colors, patterns and noises can make any of us feel that warbler’s neck sensation, one that is often only felt among some birders of the world as they peer upwards hoping to see a small migrant in the trees.
Fireworks are such a popular part of the event that the displays are considered the height of the celebrations, often taking place at the very end, ingraining in all attendees that, that’s it, time to go home, the fun is over for another year. This means that fireworks also usually only happen at night, better yet to exclaim aloud at the sparkling fountains high up in the air.
In recent years, there has been a marked awareness of the issues that fireworks can cause with our domesticated pets, most often our cats and dogs. With their loud explosions, bright flashes, and reverberating booms, fireworks can induce panic and distress among many animals who of course have no clue what is going on.
We have our mitigating tactics – try and make sure they are home that night and turn some music up, to try and drown out the explosions so that urge to flee as fast and as far away as possible is avoided; but what of the animals who are wild and free already in the great outdoors?
Many bird species rely heavily on their acute hearing for survival, making them extremely sensitive to sudden loud noises. The noise associated with fireworks can be very startling for birds, and any shock or scare leads to increased stress levels which in turn are accompanied by physiological responses such as increased heart rate and hormone production. These immediate effects then induce disorientation and confusion, but something more long-lasting is the potential for injury as birds fly into structures or each other as they react to the literal in-built flight mechanism in their panic.
Over the years there have been a few recorded occurrences of mass bird injuries and deaths as a direct result of fireworks going off; indeed, throwing fireworks and other pyrotechnic devices has been a go-to technique for decades now for farmers and other industrialists keen to protect their wares from encroaching birds. Granted, small-scale and relatively brief displays will be over, pardon the pun, in a flash, and the outcome for all is hopefully one without much harm; but it serves us well to be mindful of how our avian allies fare during a firework display.
One of the most frequently cited events was on New Year’s Eve 2010, in a town called Beebe, Arkansas. Some 5,000 birds were said to have rained down from the night sky as the sudden cacophony of explosions caused large roosts of red-winged blackbirds, brown-headed cowbirds, grackles and starlings to take to the air in panic, crashing into each other and the trees and buildings around, dying or severely injured from blunt-force trauma.
A couple of years earlier, a firework display in Gualala, California, is said to have caused seabirds to have abandoned their nests; coastal displays at this time of year also run the risk of inadvertently causing attendees to trample nests on the beaches.
Thankfully, these occasions are very few and far between, and there have been no further large-scale mass deaths reported in recent years, and research conducted by organizations like Audubon has helped shed light on how to mitigate against the effects of firework displays on birds.
Responsible usage of our fireworks goes a long way to protecting our feathered friends. Alternatives to firework displays have become increasingly popular in areas where there are known large roosts and nesting bird colonies, such as laser shows, or shows where laser images of fireworks are projected onto tall buildings, and there are also quiet fireworks available nowadays; some festivals in Italy and Canada have switched to these, decisions warmly welcomed by bird and other animal lovers who still know the importance of a party and its attendant highlights.
The fact that fireworks displays often occur during seasons when birds are engaged in critical activities such as breeding and migration makes their effect just that much more impactful. Also, nocturnal species like owls and nightjars are particularly susceptible ; the navigational adaptations to their eyes and ears enabling them to hunt in the dark means that these sudden bursts of bright can disorient them, affecting their ability to locate prey, navigate their surroundings, or return to their roosting sites.
Audubon’s research in a comprehensive study conducted in 2019 concluded that our fun need not be curtailed as long as we explore the options:
1. Use alternative forms of celebrations that do not involve fireworks, such as laser light shows or environmentally friendly displays.
2. Planning firework displays away from important bird habitats, their breeding grounds, or migration corridors, and avoiding peak nesting seasons, significantly reduces the likelihood of trauma events for the birds
3. Opting for low-decibel fireworks or use noise-dampening techniques to minimize sound disruptions is a perfect way to go
4. Increasing public awareness about the impact of fireworks on birds through campaigns, educational programs, and collaboration with conservation organizations like Audubon has untold benefits, as the more people appreciate what can happen, the more acceptable changing our ways just even slightly becomes.
5. Attend an organized display instead of using home fireworks unless you are absolutely sure there are no birds near to you. Professionally organized shows usually follow guidelines issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about animal safety, and a risk assessment should have been carried out beforehand, just as it would have been done to avoid human harm and disruption. Also, a large municipal display has the advantage of keeping the explosions confined across one locale, rather than multiple displays scattered across a wider area, meaning the birds are not not being bombarded by this unknown onslaught from all directions, and can find somewhere safe to land again sooner.
We know how exciting and amazing firework displays can be, and for many the planning and execution of these events are a highlight of the party calendar. But considering not only the ecological significance of birds but also their current and seemingly long-term trials with population declines, it is essential that we do all we ca to help them stay alive and try to promote responsible fireworks usage where we can; for us it is just one night, but for them, it could be their last.