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Fireworks displays cause significant stress to wild birds, Cambridge researchers show





One of the first scientific studies to examine whether fireworks disturb wildlife has found that they can cause significant stress to wild birds.

Research led by Dr Claudia Wascher of Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) discovered that the heart rate of geese shot up by 96 per cent and body temperature rose significantly following a display.

The study indicates the importance of not holding fireworks events in key wildlife areas.

Greylag geese at Almsee, Austria. Picture: Dr Claudia Wascher, ARU
Greylag geese at Almsee, Austria. Picture: Dr Claudia Wascher, ARU

The researchers fitted temporary transmitters to 20 wild greylag geese (Anser anser) at Almsee, a lake in Upper Austria, where nearby villages hold midnight fireworks displays to mark the new year.

Measuring signals of physiological stress, they found the average heart rate of the geese rose from 63 to 124 beats per minute - up 96 per cent - while the average body temperature went up from 38C to 39C - up three per cent - between midnight and 1am.

Between 1am and 2am, after the fireworks had ended, the average heart rate was still 31 per cent above normal and their body temperature stayed three per cent higher, In fact, it took about five hours for normal body temperatures to return.

The geese, part of a resident population at Almsee, were affected regardless of their age, showing that they do not become desensitised to fireworks over time.

Dr Wascher, associate professor in the School of Life Sciences at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), and lead author of the study published in Conservation Physiology, said: “Ours is one of the first scientific studies to examine whether fireworks disturb wildlife. There have been previous studies showing that fireworks can cause anxiety in pets, for example in dogs, but little research has been done into how animals in the wild respond.

“In Austria, New Year’s Eve fireworks begin at midnight and last for several minutes. We believe the increase in physiological stress recorded over a number of hours is a combination of increased physical activity caused by the geese taking flight while the fireworks are being set off, and psychological stress. This causes the birds to expend additional energy at a time of year when food is scarce.

Cambridge's fireworks display is held on Midsummer Common. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cambridge's fireworks display is held on Midsummer Common. Picture: Keith Heppell

“We need to carry out further research to conclusively tell whether the geese are responding to the noise or the light pollution from the fireworks, or a combination of both.

“Many people get a lot of enjoyment from fireworks but it’s important that we consider animals – both pets and wildlife – whenever planning a display. It’s clear from our study that we should certainly avoid using fireworks in areas with large wildlife populations.”

One study of fireworks in the Netherlands between 2007 and 2019 found thousands of birds took flight for 45 minutes after new year fireworks to altitudes of 500 metres - well above their daytime flight elevation.

And hundreds of dead starlings were found after New Year’s Eve celebrations in Rome in 2021.

Writing in The Conversation, Dr Wascher noted: “The exact reasons why they died are unknown, but we know loud noises cause animal panic responses which could be deadly if they hit obstacles or got lost and separated from their flock.

“We also know wild animals suffer chronic stress, fertility problems and change their migration routes in response to noise. Animals can also be more sensitive to noise than humans and have different hearing ranges.”

Pet owners have long understood that fireworks can cause distress and alarm to their animals.

But as awareness of the impact on wildlife grows, some places have been reconsidering their displays.

Center Parcs, the UK holiday park company, has banned them on its land to protect wildlife and lights up its forests with an Enchanted Light Garden instead.

Herefordshire Council, partly in response to animal welfare concerns, also banned noisy fireworks displays on council-owned land in January 2022.

Laser and drone shows have become increasingly popular alternatives, with the worldwide market for drone light shows expected to grow at 18.2 per cent until 2027.



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