Storks Hooked on Junk Food Are Giving Up on Migrating

March 21, 2016 | Reece Alvarez

Birds, tractor, landfill
Photo credit: University of East Anglia

A new report finds that several species of birds have given up normal migration patterns due to their dependence on the massive amounts of garbage in open-air landfills.

It is not just humans who are addicted to junk food. Some populations of white storks are so addicted to human garbage they make round-trips of almost 100 km to get their fix, according to new research from the University of East Anglia in England.

According to the university, since the mid-1980s, increasing numbers of storks no longer migrate from Europe to Africa for the winter.

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Instead, many live in Spain and Portugal the whole year round — feeding on 'junk food' from landfill sites, which provide a constant supply of discarded and wasted food.

The bird is among a growing number of migratory species that have modified their behavior due to human influences and global environmental change, according to the university.

Recently published in the journal Movement Biology, the new research is the first to confirm that white storks are now nesting and living near landfill sites all year round, the study claims.

Gulls at a landfill

White storks now call landfill sites home year-round. Photo credit: University of East Anglia.

Lead researcher Dr. Aldina Franco, said Portugal's growing stork population has increased 10 fold over the last 20 years and the country is now home to approximately 14,000 wintering birds.

“Several species, including the white stork, which used to be fully migratory in Europe now have resident populations,” she said in a release. “Storks now rely on landfill sites for food — especially during the non-breeding season when other food sources are more scarce. This has facilitated the establishment of resident populations.”

The study found white storks have adopted entirely new behaviors because of their

reliance on landfills, with some storks willing to travel up to 48.2 kilometers (30 miles) during the non-breeding season and up to 28.1kilometers (17.4 miles) during the breeding season to reach the dump sites.

The study not only revealed that the continuous availability of junk food from landfills changed the birds’ willingness to migrate, but also influenced nest use, daily travel distances, and foraging ranges, said Franco.

Landfills have become such a significant part of white storks’ habitat that researchers fear the closure of landfills, as required by new European Union laws, will have a dramatic impact on stork populations.

"Having a nest close to a guaranteed food supply also means that the storks are less inclined to leave for the winter,” said Franco in a press release. “Rubbish dumps sites in Portugal are scheduled to be gradually replaced by new facilities where food waste is handled under cover. This will cause a problem for the storks as they will have to find an alternative winter food supply. It may well impact on their distribution, breeding location, chick fledging success and migratory decisions."

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