Bald Eagles Are Eating Plastic

Bald eagles are eating plastic. And, thanks to research by College of Charleston student Austin Fitzhenry, we know they are eating it right here in Charleston, South Carolina. To clarify, these iconic symbols of American freedom are probably not eating plastic litter intentionally. Instead, they are preying on animals like squirrels, birds, and freshwater catfish that have already ingested various bits of plastic trash. Is this a problem for bald eagles? We don’t know yet, but it’s certainly concerning.

An example of an indigestible pellet


Austin had been observing a local pair of bald eagles for several years, and was fortunate enough to witness them feed and care for multiple chicks in a large nest securely constructed in a pine tree. As birds of prey, bald eagles frequently get rid of indigestible items they’ve eaten like bones and fur – and plastic – by regurgitating them in pellets, which can be found on the ground around the nest.

Intrigued by the possibility of plastics in the terrestrial food web, particularly in an apex predator like the bald eagle, Austin designed a research study to collect the pellets, other prey debris, and fecal material from underneath this nest without disturbing the eagles. Under the guidance of Dr. Phil Dustan, a College of Charleston biology professor with expertise in plastic pollution, Austin used fluorescent microscopy to look for plastics in samples collected from both the adults and chicks in the nest. His results, which will be published this spring, confirm that plastics are indeed present in our local terrestrial food web. This study, and others like it, tell us that plastics have now infiltrated nearly every niche in the ecosystem, and may even be present in animals like oysters that are often consumed by humans.

Evidence of plastics in the food chain


Most research on plastic pollution occurs in the marine environment, in part because this is where the plastic pollution problem is most visible. However, it is important to remember that plastics are created and primarily used right here on land and, thus, the source of the problem is upstream from the ocean in our own terrestrial environment. The most telling evidence of this comes right from the eagles themselves, and the many plastics – including 5 pieces of plastic bag and numerous microplastics – found in their pellets. The next time you see a plastic bag wafting through a park or caught in vegetation next to the sidewalk, we hope you’ll now have one more reason to pick it up. Without someone like you to properly dispose of it, that plastic litter might just end up inside a bald eagle.

Contibuted by Austin Fitzhenry, student, College of Charleston.