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Common redshank, foraging on a mudflat, hunts better thanks to light pollution. Photo: <a href="">Stefan Berndtsson</a> Creative Commons, some rights reserved
Common redshank, foraging on a mudflat, hunts better thanks to light pollution. Photo: Stefan Berndtsson Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Natural Selections: You're welcome, Mother Nature

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Much of human activity has a big downside for the natural environment. But sometimes, the problems we pose to nature can give a leg up to certain species. Martha Foley and Dr. Curt Stager discuss the upside of light pollution and cigarette butts.

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Curt Stager: There was a study published in Nature in 2012. This was done in Scotland along the shoreline where there’s a lot of industrial development, and at night the bright lights are on and sort of changes what the habitat is like. And a lot of people are really concerned about shorebirds.

So one of these stories was checking it out, and they were especially concerned with one kind of shorebird called the redshank that migrates in and out. It’s got long legs and sometimes it forages by probing its long bill into the mud or the sand, feeling for vertebrates. And sometimes it walks around looking for things on the surface--I would guess little crabs or things like that. So they were wondering does this development along the shore affect them when they’re doing their thing.

And it turns out they put little radio transmitters on the birds, and the transmitters would tell the scientists what the bird is doing. Does it have its head down is one thing they could tell. In that case it’s probing. Or does it have its head up, in which case it’s scanning the beach for food. And it turned out in these brightly lit areas the birds kept their heads up all night; they were able to forage visually because the lights were on.

Martha Foley: And that’s easier for them--probably less work than digging around in the sand.

CS: Probably less work, and it’s more accurate. You can see where the food is and go to it rather than sort of randomly probing around. And of course if they wanted to probe, they could do it in the light too. They preferred "Hey I can see! Food!"

House finches in Mexico City get fewer mite infestations in their nests, thanks to cigarette butts. Photo: <a href="">Pablo Leautaud</a>, Creative Commons, some rights reserved
House finches in Mexico City get fewer mite infestations in their nests, thanks to cigarette butts. Photo: Pablo Leautaud, Creative Commons, some rights reserved
MF: Easy-Louisey. That’s great. And there is a second story, which is different, because it really is like taking something--well, cigarette butts--which you don’t think of as nesting material for birds. But, turns out…

CS: Well, I mean, you think like “Oh that’s horrible. It’s trash.”

MF: It’s icky!

CS: We think of it as disgusting, but it turns out--this is a study in Mexico City--a lot of people, a lot of cigarette butts. They also have house finches and house sparrows from elsewhere living there, too. But the study showed that these birds use cigarette butts in their nests. Oh, isn’t that sad?

MF: Are they just desperate, or what?

CS: Well yeah, it is disgusting, but that’s why they do it. They looked at it carefully and said "Well, what is it about this?" They took fibers out of cigarette butts and realized, well there’s nicotine on there, and that’s an insecticide. It’s in tobacco plants, it’s an insect repellant. And people actually spray it on fields as an insecticide. Maybe there’s something going on. And sure enough, they put little traps out for mites that bother the birds a lot in the nests. And the little enclosures that had the cigarette butt fibers had very few mites, and regular ones had lots of mites. So they’re pretty sure the birds are using the nicotine-soaked cigarette butts as things to keep mites out of the nests, so their babies are healthier. So isn’t that neat? The stuff that makes us sick makes the birds healthier.

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