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Duck Ensnared in Plastic Sparks Rescue Mission in Central Park

Rangers and bird enthusiasts are searching for a common merganser that appears to be unable to eat due to plastic debris that has become stuck in its bill

The common merganser appears to have the ring from a plastic bottle stuck around its mouth and neck. (Image Courtesy of urbanhawks.com )
smithsonianmag.com

A search and rescue mission is underway in New York City’s Central Park, as officials and bird enthusiasts comb the area for a beautiful duck ensnared by a piece of plastic.

The female common merganser was first sighted in the park on February 19, David Barrett of the Manhattan Bird Alert Twitter account tells Gothamist’s Jen Carlson. Normally, the appearance of this long-bodied duck, whose females are distinguished by shaggy crests on their heads, would have sparked excitement among the city’s birdwatchers. According to Corey Kilgannon of the New York Times, a “common merganser may only be seen in the city perhaps once a year during migratory travels north.” But in the case of this particular bird, something was wrong.

A piece of plastic, possibly the ring to a beverage container, had become wrapped around the merganser’s neck and narrow bill, and appeared to be preventing the duck from eating. Like many other duck species, common mergansers dive underwater to catch fish. With debris jammed around its bill, the bird “can’t close its throat, so when it dives, water rushes in and prevents it from feeding,” Bradley Kane, a Manhattan bird photographer in Manhattan who posted photos of the unfortunate merganser on Twitter, explains to the Times.

Sandra Critelli, a birder and photographer who saw the merganser, tells Gothamist that the duck was active, but unable to close its beak. “Eventually she will die because of a little plastic ring,” Critelli says, “and that is really sad.”

Hoping to prevent the worst, rangers with the New York City Parks Department took kayaks out onto the lake where the duck had been spotted, searching the area on Monday. The plan, NYC Parks press officer Megan Moriarty tells Gothamist, was to find the bird, remove the plastic and transport the merganser to the Wild Bird Fund, an animal rehabilitation center on New York’s Upper West Side. But alas, the merganser was nowhere to be seen.

Plastic pollution is a scourge to wildlife, and birds are no exception. Much of the research into this issue has focused on seabirds, which are on the frontlines of the Earth’s pollution-choked oceans. Birds become ensnared in plastic waste, rendering them unable to find food and escape predators, among other things. Mistaking floating pieces of plastic debris for food, seabirds also gobble down our garbage, which can pierce their organs or trick them into feeling full, prompting them to stop eating. Last year, a sobering study found that seabirds have become physically smaller and suffer from a range of health problems—including high cholesterol and poor kidney function—due to plastic consumption.

According to the Urban Bird Foundation, birds that live far from the ocean are impacted by plastic pollution, too—“most obviously through entanglements.” The merganser is just one of those birds, but “being in the most visible park in the world, it’s going to raise attention,” Barrett tells the Times.

According to the Manhattan Bird Alert, rangers searched for the duck once again on Tuesday morning, but once again came up short. But there may still be hope. “If you see her,” the account implored its followers, “let us know!”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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