Ask Sam: Do Fireworks Harm Wildlife?

Aug 23, 2019

Sure it's pretty, but if you were a bird you'd have no idea what was going on.
Credit Flickr Creative Commons | ajari

Every other Friday on Morning Edition, Outside/In host Sam Evans-Brown answers a question from a listener about some quirk of the world around us.

(Do you have a question for Sam? Submit it here!)  

Barb in Goffstown asks: "I’m just wondering if anyone has ever studied the effects of fireworks on Wildlife. I’m thinking about Waterville Valley. They do fireworks quite often and the noise really reverberates through the valley. I just read that Banff uses low impact, low noise fireworks for this reason for their Canada Day celebration. I didn’t know that there was such a thing."

Ok dear reader, if you had to guess how many studies of the impacts of the noise of fireworks on wildlife have been done throughout the years, where would you put the number?

“There is one that I know of,” says Graeme Shannon, a lecturer at Bangor University in Wales who led a meta-review from 2016 that synthesized over 200 other studies documenting the effects of noise on wildlife. “It looked at using radar to track the movements of birds en masse, following New Years fireworks displays.” 

What did this study show? 

“They showed that these animals were moving hundreds of meters into the sky, up to five hundred altitude, much higher than they would normally fly, and this lasted, these aerial movements, upwards of 45 minutes,” says Shannon, “So huge displacement… behavioral change.” 

So, no… birds don’t like fireworks.

In fact, in Beebe, Arkansas, around 5,000 Red Wing Black birds were found dead on New Year’s Day in 2011. The story here, essentially is that the fireworks go off, the birds panic and start flying full-speed through the pitch black in order to escape, and they fly headlong into things. 

You’ll see this story cited all over the internet, accompanied by recommendations from Audubon and other bird conservation groups. Essentially: “hey, just go to the one big centralized public fireworks display, and don’t set off your own fireworks.

Fireworks Are Just a Few Times a Year

But now, remember how I mentioned that analysis reviewed over 200 papers? More than a third of those studies are on birds, which I think is because they’re so mysterious, and whales and dolphins are the runners up. 

And what kind of noise did they study? While some of them are about sudden loud noises like those caused by low flying jets, most looked into the general background noise pollution that we crank out every day from our cars, cities, and industry. 

“If you were in a national park with species that were particularly rare for example or easily disturbed and suddenly you had military overflights, that could be crucial for the survival of the species,” says Shannon, “However on a global aspect, most of it is chronic noise from transport in urban areas, and therefore likely has a bigger effect.”

So yes, by all means, if a town wants to buy quieter fireworks or if you can convince towns or other folks to set off fireworks less frequently, the wildlife will appreciate it. 

But when it comes to noise pollution, the big fish is our day-to-day existence: our cars, our cities and our ships. And solving that one is a much tougher nut to crack. 

Sam Evans-Brown, is host of NHPR’s Outside/In which you can subscribe to wherever you get your podcasts. If you’d like to submit a question you can record it as a voice memo on your smartphone and send it to oustidein@nhpr.org, OR call the hotline, 1-844-GO-OTTER.

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