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Photographer Chris Jordan has published a series of images identified as dead albatross on Midway Atoll whose bodies are filled with bits of plastic they ingested.

Midway Island is an anemic little line of sand and coral reefs, way out in the middle of the Pacific. Now, I don't know Mr. Jordan personally, and haven't fact-checked the story behind the photos -- but presuming it's all as presented, this really is a horrifying set of images. Birds that live as far away from civilization as you can imagine, their innards packed with petroleum flotsam? Wow.

The nesting babies are fed bellies-full of plastic by their parents, who soar out over the vast polluted ocean collecting what looks to them like food to bring back to their young. On this diet of human trash, every year tens of thousands of albatross chicks die on Midway from starvation, toxicity, and choking. To document this phenomenon as faithfully as possible, not a single piece of plastic in any of these photographs was moved, placed, manipulated, arranged, or altered in any way. These images depict the actual stomach contents of baby birds in one of the world's most remote marine sanctuaries, more than 2000 miles from the nearest continent.
Midway (chrisjordan.com, Thanks, Susannah Breslin and Sean Bonner!)

57 Responses to “Photos of remote birds killed by our trash”

  1. 'monster says:

    I don’t know if the plastic bits have been moved around for artistic purposes, BUT the amount of plastic found in the birds is amazing. And very real.

    Adult Albatross eat loads of flyingfish eggs. Flying fish attach their eggs to floating debris, historically pumice. Adult swallows pumice (or lighter, or plastic action figure) covered with eggs. It flies hundreds of miles back to the baby, and barfs up dinner. The babies could puke up pumice- but the edges and corners of the plastic crap make this all but impossible- if they don’t puncture the bird from the inside anyway.

    Check out the book ‘Archipelago: Portraits of Life in the World’s Most Remote Island Sanctuary’ by David Liittschwager and Susan Middleton for the whole story.

    Please Get angry. And stop with all the plastic.

  2. bearchild says:

    I feel ill. Calling Unicorn Chaser. :’(
    Those photographs are pretty disgusting.

  3. Quothz says:

    “Why the heck does a bird swallow a lighter?”

    Because the bird doesn’t know it’s a lighter. If I were to speculate, I’d guess the lighter looked like a minnow.

  4. J Schreiber says:

    @Xeni — This also made it to the top position on BB Trends today: http://trends.boingboing.net/page/link/73727/

  5. Anonymous says:

    I think it’s pretty clear by now that we’re killing our planet. We’ve already succeeded in wiping out much of its wildlife by hunting, pollution and destruction and disruption of habitats. Just think of the roadkill problem, and that’s only a tiny part of it. We may not be doing it intentionally but the result is the same. Just a crushing tide of humanity sweeping over the plant until there’s nothing else left. It’s the tragedy of our age and perhaps the final one.

  6. Snakefarmer says:

    Howdy there, mdh, thanks for the clarification, but I am already familiar with the phrase “being an apologist,” which really isn’t applicable here. I was merely pointing out the difference in digestive systems between humans and gulls. What is normal for a human to ingest would vary greatly to what a seagoing bird would eat, as it is normal for them to consume hard objects to grind up their food. A gizzard can hold a lot more strange items than a stomach can. As far as “blaming” birds for “being too dumb not to eat our garbage,” I was only pointing out that they can’t tell the difference, and wasn’t making a judgment call on our feathered buddies. If anything, I was suggesting we be mindful of what we throw away, since we know the difference.

  7. Ben Ainslie says:

    Here is a great visual representation of the plastic bubble in the pacific.

    http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/2009/great-visualizers-good-magazine/

  8. mdh says:

    A gizzard can hold a lot more strange items than a stomach can.

    do you eat a lot of plastic?

    do other species make a lot of it?

    Did you entirely miss the larger point in your diversion of the conversation onto how it might be the birds fault?

    I think you might have entirely missed the larger point. No. I am certain you have.

    when you throw something “out”, that birds stomach is where “out” is.

    now either we’re to blame, or the bird is, and you’re blaming the bird, apologising for his being so stupid.

    bravo.

  9. AirPillo says:

    Well there goes my idea to sell novelty fish-shaped lighters to smokers/fishermen.

  10. awwhoneybear says:

    this picture disturbed me greatly, which is the point. thanks for the post.

    i have to ask . . . now what? many things tell us how to prevent this problem, which is very important, but is there a way to “fix” what we have already done?

    probably not . . . not entirely, anyway.

  11. pjcamp says:

    This is a known problem and has been for a long time. It happens with birds closer to home as well. But just because the albatross was found at Midway doesn’t mean that it ingested the detritus near Midway. Albatrosses fly globally. They can soar for 1000 miles before setting down again. There is really no telling where it picked the stuff up.

  12. Anonymous says:

    noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo

  13. benher says:

    We’ll be the next ones to choke on it.

  14. hulahoney83 says:

    As far as fact checking goes, this story is beyond true. I remember seeing Jean-Michel Cousteau discussing the problem on his special Ocean Adventures: Voyage to Kure (http://www.pbs.org/kqed/oceanadventures/episodes/kure/diaries/day19.html)

  15. daverunsfromfire says:

    This is a WONDERFUL post. Images like these are some of the most succinct arguments for massive changes in our behavior as a species. The Romans may well have fallen due to the lead in their pipes, we are doing the same with the chemicals in our food chain. I have seen images like these in a documentary called “Addicted To Plastic”, which I highly recommend.

  16. blatantdisregard says:

    When I first saw the picture I thought “steampunk bird sculpture”. Too bad that’s not the case.

  17. tonesfrommars says:

    Captain Charles Moore (who discovered the great eastern garbage patch in the middle of the pacific) has delivered a very comprehensive and succinct talk on the subject at the 2009 TED conference.

    http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/capt_charles_moore_on_the_seas_of_plastic.html

  18. pjk says:

    Without doubting the fact of vast plastic pollution of our oceans, some of these photos look, to my completely untrained eye, staged. Like, a little too neat (in my experience as a journalist, almost nothing is this neat). What do albatrosses eat, anyway? I could understand them mistaking bottle caps for food at first, but not actually ingesting them, much less regurgitating them to their chicks. Poor sense of smell? Please don’t hate me for being skeptical, I’m like this all the time! Just would like to see some commentary from a scientific-type person.

  19. iopha says:

    I’m reminded of that Calvin and Hobbes strip where, looking in disgust at a pile of trash in the woods, Calvin remarks “I think the surest sign that there is intelligent life out there in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us.”

    Or, again, a conversation between Adama and Boomer in Battlestar Galactica, over whether humanity is a species worth saving.

  20. Hmpf says:

    This is a well-known environmental issue, which concerns many species of sea-living animals. Also, yeah, animals *eating* the stuff isn’t the only problem; there’s also the related issue of all that plastic leaking chemicals into the water, some of which act like sexual hormones and lead to fish turning hermaphrodite, etc. It’s a *huge* problem.

    BTW, if this is not enough of an argument against our throwaway culture, also check out Chris Jordan’s other series of photos, “Running the Numbers”. It’s a great way to get a real idea of how much trash our lifestyle is producing (among other things).

    - I say ‘our lifestyle’ although that series of photos is subtitled “an American self-portrait” (and I’m European) because, although Europeans produce somewhat less trash than Americans do, the general problem exists here, too, of course.

  21. RedShirt77 says:

    I don’t want to divert attention from the clearly human causes of the obvious tragedy here, but…

    Why the heck does a bird swallow a lighter?

  22. ahoward17 says:

    I think that the world as a whole needs to slow down from their busy lives for just a moment and take a look at what we are doing to the world. It is bad. It is also way out of control and only going to get worse. If there are species thousands of miles away affected by our wastefulness, think of the huge negative impact this is causing. We not only need to make sure that we are throwing things away but we need to recycle. It is so important to recycle everything that you can. The curbside pickup for recycling only takes a small amount of items that can be recycled. If more people would take time to go to local recycling centers they will take more recyclables. I recycle basic things like newspaper, plastics, glass but you can also recycle tin, aluminum, cardboard, office paper, plastic bags, magazines, and really any type of plastic bags. Lets start making the world better and recycle more!

  23. mdh says:

    None of us is as dumb as all of us.

  24. MasterSauce says:

    Wow. That’s striking and very awful. Powerful, Powerful images.

    Now, if I could just get a Unicorn chaser showing a dead unicorn and all the plastic bits in its guts the cycle will be complete.

    ~Sauce

  25. anansi133 says:

    The remoteness of the shoot sure brings it home to me. This is why I don’t run and hide in some back-to-the-land fantasy: I’d be no more able to make it stop out there than here in the city.

    Kinda like that line from The Hurt Locker; “There’s enough bang here to send us all to Jesus. If I’m gonna die, I’ll die comfortable.”

    Not that colorful bits of plastic have anything to do with comfort…

  26. TK says:

    The simplest way to fact-check something like this is by Flickr search: http://www.flickr.com/search/?q=plastic+albatross

    Obviously, those corpses aren’t some kind of art installation.

  27. silus says:

    This BBC doc on the subject is available to dl here: http://www.messageinthewaves.com/

  28. Anonymous says:

    This is so sad and extremely disturbing. What are we doing?

  29. airship says:

    Oh, THERE’S my lighter!

  30. ill lich says:

    Abandon hope all ye who enter here.

  31. Anonymous says:

    I believe this story.

    But, as a photographer, I am also reminded of the great Weegee, the NYC crime photo reporter who was not above “revising” the scene to get the best possible shot. He would constantly move evidence, weapons, even clothing to get the maximum effect.

    Did these birds die of (pardon the phrase) consumption? Most likely. Our crap is everywhere, and I’ll bet lots of animals clog themselves with it. But were these shots taken with items in situ, or was a bit of Weegee-like embellishment employed? I suppose the point, like the bird itself, is moot.

  32. Snakefarmer says:

    This is not to minimize the idea that we should not dump cr@p in the ocean or otherwise try to lessen our impact on the environment, but what a lot of folks don’t know is, animals with gizzards will eat things like rocks and sand to grind up the food they eat. So, sometimes when birds eat things like this it’s not necessarily as damaging as it would be if we tried to eat these things. I still think it’s probably bad for birds to ingest lighters, nails, and the like, though. But the reason why a bird might eat a lighter is it probably thinks “this looks like a nice sized rock for the old gizzard!” Still sad, though.

    • mdh says:

      snakefarmer, you may not realize it, but what you did there is called ‘being an apologist’.

      Birds are **NOT** supposed to be smarter than people – so please don’t blame birds for being too dumb not to eat our garbage WHILE expecting to be taken seriously.

      It’s their ocean, we’re the ones fucking it up.

      • danlalan says:

        A very small point of disagreement, mdh. The planet, oceans included, is the inheritance of all living things, including us. So as well as fucking up the albatross’s oceans, we are also fucking up our oceans. Which damn sure doesn’t make it any smarter a thing to do. It remains to be seen if “sentience” is adaptive in the long run or is more akin to a natural disaster, like an asteroid impact.

        • mdh says:

          point taken – I figure the albatross spends far more time out there than we do, so I try to consider it objectively his/theirs.

          • danlalan says:

            So they do, and I agree it is far more their realm than ours.

            I only wished to point out for those who have little concern for our planetmates that by crapping in their nest, we are crapping in ours as well. Even for someone who has open animosity towards wildlife conservation pure unenlightened self-interest should have alarm bells sounding.

            Not that BB is the best place to reach that segment of society…

  33. gparker32 says:

    Okay, I’ll dissent. I see here evolution at work. The birds that don’t eat these will reproduce more efficiently than those that do. Eventually birds will evolve not to eat trash. And yes, our oceans are filled with trash, and nothing that’s posted to this blog will change that. Our world is changing, and every species, including our own is changing too.

    • mdh says:

      don’t drop your briefcase.

    • danlalan says:

      You are correct, the environment in which everything lives is always changing, but if the environment changes too much too fast the critters that were well adapted to the old environment become extinct and new ones evolve for the new environment…over geologic time.
      If evolution could respond that fast, there would be birdshot resistant passenger pigeons.

  34. Antinous / Moderator says:

    I think that you might have an overly optimistic view of the speed of evolution.

  35. Anonymous says:

    For those wondering why a bird would eat things like a lighter remember that birds don’t have teeth, many of them swallow their food whole (some can tear it like eagles). Since lighters have only existed for a few decades out of their millions of years of evolution they can’t see the difference between them and an especially firm and glossy fish floating on the surface.

  36. allenrl says:

    This is obviously bush’s fault.

  37. deckard68 says:

    So *that’s* why the curbside recycling programs don’t allow bottle caps to be recycled — they’re saving them for the birds.

  38. Anonymous says:

    Birds ingest all kind of things, and not just for food. Many species of bird swallow stones to aid in digestion. They pick up all kinds of material to build nests with. It’s kind of silly to question why the bird would swallow the garbage rather than why the garbage is there in the first place.

  39. Anonymous says:

    Chris Jordan’s site was down last I checked. Planet Green has the full series reprinted here with permission: http://planetgreen.discovery.com/travel-outdoors/chris-jordan-midway-birds.html

  40. MollyNYC says:

    I don’t know if this is a good idea or a lousy idea, but you know those big commercial catch-everything (“purse seine,” is it?) fish nets?

    I know they’re tough on oceanic fish, but could they be used to clean up these plastic-enriched zones, where the sea life is pretty-much shot already?

    • Anonymous says:

      Sadly, the plastic gyre isn’t made up of coherent bits of plastic. Much of it has degraded from the salt and sun, and it’s now more a plastic “soup” just below the surface, so fish nets won’t work. Besides, the fish nets would have to be so dense (even if it was just small plastic bits like lighters and bottle caps) that it would be impossible to drag very far without it capsizing the boat or tearing.

      How fitting that my reCaptcha is “disgusts 100,000

  41. ahoward17 says:

    I definitely think that the pictures are very disturbing. It really makes me wonder why people pollute or litter. Numerous times I have seen full trash bags thrown in the road or in public and that is so unnecessary. For people to be to act so lazy is sad. The birds and animals do not know any better. They are just eating things that they think are food. When there is tons of trash in the ocean, the animals are just acting normally and eating in their natural environment. Humans are not doing their part to take care of the earth. This behavior is going to turn on us and hurt us in the long run. In fact, it is already effecting us. As a species, we should seriously take this into consideration of changing our behavior.

  42. Anonymous says:

    Midway is not far away from civilization. People live there, and litter like everyone else.

  43. Colorado Bob says:

    hulahoney83 -

    Is completely correct about Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Adventures: Voyage to Kure -

    http://www.pbs.org/kqed/oceanadventures/episodes/kure/diaries/day19.html

    Other scenes in this episode showed huge windrows of plastic trash being gathered off the beach on Midway. Lots of fishing gear mixed in with the toothbrushes, and bottle caps.
    The National Park Service has a program to volunteer to do this work. It’s the only way a citizen can get on Midway these days.

  44. scifijazznik says:

    This is why I come to bOING2. An exquisitely disturbing find.

  45. Stefan Jones says:

    Why do the tree-huggers always put the blame on us humans? It could be the result of natural cycles!

    ^
    |
    snark

  46. Anonymous says:

    This isn’t really an OMG TEH PLASTIC!!! issue so much as it is an OMG TEH HUMANZ!!! issue. The thing is, humans are simply producing a lot of inedible stuff that happens to float instead of sink. Saying AAAAHHHH THE CHEMICALS!!! in response to these pictures is just stupid and undermines your argument, so stop that.

    Humans have to live with the rest of the planet or kill it off. Obviously we should do something about plastic floating around – maybe ban anything with a specific density less than water. But it needs to be a global initiative.

  47. tidahirohito says:

    Primarily collect garbage. Second do not throw away garbage. All humankind cooperate. A leader is necessary for the human. For example, there is the man who makes a ship with PET bottle of the plastic. His name is David de Rothchild. “Captain David” proposes that he protects the sea. It is to protect a living entity of the earth to protect the sea.

  48. Anonymous says:

    The birds come and go, but the plastic always remain. Sick, depressing stuff. I hate the water-bottlers and soda-swiggers. Caps in every picture.

  49. ecologist says:

    I visited Midway (in 2000) and saw lots of these plastic-filled skeletons. Albatrosses do most of their feeding on the surface (squid, cuttlefish eggs, fish). While breeding they make extremely long foraging trips and bring food back to their chicks, waiting back on the nest. They have no evolutionary history with plastic, so they snap that up along with the fish. But, alas, it doesn’t work so well for them. Nests on Midway are often surrounded by circles of barfed-up plastic, and then there are the skeletons of the less fortunate. So, this photo is neither faked nor enhanced.

    Albatrosses are fascinating amazing creatures. Try “Eye of the Albatross” by Carl Safina (2003) for a well-written account of their biology and the hazards they face (long-line fishing is much worse than the plastic).

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