¡Feliz Año Nuevo! If your new year’s resolution is to quit smoking, consider donating your used butts to Mexican birds, who appear to be using them to get rid of parasites.
After noticing that local birds were incorporating cigarette butts into their nests, researchers in Mexico City decided to test whether they might be doing because of the parasite-repellent properties of nicotine (Suárez-Rodríguez M, López-Rull I & Garcia CM 2013, “Incorporation of cigarette butts into nests reduces nest ectoparasite load in urban birds: new ingredients for an old recipe?”, Biology Letters, vol. 9, no. 1, 20120931, doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2012.0931).
Sure enough, nests with more butts were found to have fewer ectoparasites (creatures like mites that live on the outside of organisms) than those without. Although, they also found that smoked butts worked better, as they were more toxic to parasites.
Further research is needed to determine whether the birds are choosing the butts for their anti-parasite properties, or if it’s just because they make good insulation. Also, the researchers hope to find out whether using cigarettes does actually benefit the birds, or if the toxicity harms them as well.
But it’s good at least to see that birds can adapt and make use of urban environments, even if it is through poisonous litter. A kind-of good news story to start the year!
(This story first aired on 20 December 2012 – you can listen to the podcast.)