For the Birds Radio Program: Conservation: Chimneys and Plastic Rings

Original Air Date: March 30, 2004 (estimated date)

Laura has tips on how to protect birds from some horrible fates.

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Chimney and Plastic Rings

Not nearly as many birds drop down chimneys as crash into windows, but when a hurt or disoriented bird suddenly appears in the fireplace, it’s traumatic for us, to say nothing of the poor bird. Of course, some chimneys are more enticing than others. One Snowy Owl with a radio transmitter dropped down the chimney of an abandoned hotel in Superior, Wisconsin. The bird was located by a raptor researcher only because he managed to zero in on the bird’s transmitter signal. When he reached the emaciated but still living bird, he discovered the mummified bodies of two other Snowies and several pigeons that weren’t lucky enough to be wearing a radio transmitter when they needed help.

Over the years, I’ve heard from several people who’ve had owls drop down their chimneys. Nuthatches, creepers, and woodpeckers are among the other native birds likely to drop down chimneys, but pigeons, starlings, and House Sparrows are the most likely birds to end up in this predicament. Tumbling down a length of chimney can cause serious physical injuries to a bird. One White-breasted Nuthatch brought to me had been pierced by something sharp as he fell down a chimney. He had a badly swollen foot and a gash in his abdomen, and died the first night.

If a bird does fall down your chimney or gets into your house through a window, don’t chase it down—if it panics, you’ll have more problems for yourself and the bird. First, close doors to other rooms in order to keep the bird in as confined a space as possible. Close all the shades and curtains and turn off any lights to make the room as dark as possible. If the room has a door to the outside, open it and slowly move behind the bird to guide it outside. If there is no entryway, open a window from behind the still-closed curtain, keeping any closed glass surfaces covered with a shade or towel when you open the drapes in order to keep the bird from hitting the glass. Then slowly move behind the bird to guide it toward the open window.

If no windows can be opened to lead the bird outside, keep the room darkened and try to toss a towel over the bird. Then you can pick it up and release it outdoors. If the bird is injured, bring it to a rehabilitator.

This is one of the easiest bird problems to prevent. All you need to do is put a cap on your chimney. Home improvement stores offer many choices of chimney screens and caps. Not only will you protect birds from a dangerous situation, you’ll also be protecting yourself from a potentially distressing and messy predicament.

Another predicament birds get into, one that’s easy to prevent, it getting tangled in six-pack rings. Once when I was birding at the Brownsville Dump in Texas I spotted an Anhinga swimming in the port, a plastic six-pack ring around its throat. The bird looked sick and distressed, its throat swollen above the plastic ring, probably filled with decaying fish that the bird couldn’t swallow. It was swimming too far out for us to catch, and regardless, we didn’t know the area well enough to know where to bring it in those days before the Internet.

It’s unlikely that a person dumped the six-pack rings there at the dump. More likely, someone removed it from a six-pack at home and threw it in the wastebasket. It was after the garbage reached the landfill that it became lethal. Perhaps a gull picked it out of the garbage and carried it off; perhaps the wind blew it into the water. But somehow the Anhinga thrust its narrow beak and head into it in the water, and then couldn’t get it off again.

I also once saw a Ring-billed Gull with a plastic six-pack ring stuck around its neck at the Wisconsin Point landfill in Superior, Wisconsin. It’s a small matter to keep a scissors in the kitchen, and to cut up six-pack rings into pieces before throwing them out. This simple act can save a bird from getting tangled and dying of starvation long after we’ve forgotten all about drinking that soda, much less throwing out the plastic rings.