Every year, people around the country flock to parks, beaches, and ball games to celebrate Independence Day. Grills smolder. Pyrotechnics pop. But unless it’s done with care, all that partying can have unintended consequences.
Around 16,000 fireworks displays light up the night sky on July 4th, according to an industry estimate. These fireworks can disturb or harm both pets and wildlife, including birds. “The noise and lights disorient them,” says Audubon Florida bird conservation director Audrey DeRose-Wilson. The booms and bangs risk driving off parents, leaving chicks exposed to predators and other threats, she says.
“When they get scared, they lay down and hide, and they'll look for a place like a vehicle track or maybe a footprint,” she says. “Obviously those are bad places to be on a beach.”
Recent data bear this out. As seen in a 2022 study in Europe, New Year’s Eve fireworks sent the heart rates of geese soaring for hours, a sign their stress had staying power. In a separate study, GPS-tracked geese flew greater distances and climbed higher for several nights after a celebration; some flew more than 300 miles on the night of fireworks, a distance typical only during migration, says Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior researcher Andrea Kölzsch.
Long after the show ends, fireworks also pollute the air and water with metals and other toxic chemicals that build up in the food chain, contaminating fish and reptiles that birds and other animals consume. “They’re toxic time bombs waiting to be passed on,” says ecologist Bill Bateman, who published a 2023 review of how fireworks displays affect wildlife.
Fireworks can be especially harmful in the wrong location. In a tragic example last summer, a poorly sited show in Texas spooked an egret colony. Panicked birds collided with power transformers, causing an outage and avian deaths. Some hatchlings fell from their nests. In dry or drought-prone regions, displays also ignite flames: More human-caused wildfires in the United States start on July 4th than on any other day of the year.
Rather than set off your own fireworks, DeRose-Wilson advises attending a responsibly sited municipal display. Around the country, conservation groups and community members work with organizers to safely locate fireworks shows far from sensitive areas. Even better, Bateman says, encourage your community to switch to laser or choreographed drone displays, an increasingly popular choice for minimizing pollution and fire risk. In short bursts, Bateman notes, light shows are less disturbing to birds than loud booms. Plus, he says, “they’re pretty spectacular.”
As revelers pack up and head home, another sign of the celebrations typically lingers: trash, and a lot of it. Beach days, picnics in the park, and sidewalk barbecues generate piles of rubbish, and not all of it makes it into proper receptacles by the stroke of midnight. Trash left lying around poses many risks to birds and other wildlife, such as drawing predators to eggs and chicks. Plastic is especially pernicious: Scientists even recently coined a new name, “plasticosis,” for the symptoms seabirds suffer from ingesting too much.
To take aim at this problem, many groups organize July 5th cleanups. Last year, one long-running effort in Lake Tahoe, California, drew nearly 300 volunteers who collected 3,450 pounds of trash. “Whether you’ve got five minutes or five hours, there’s something you can do to make an impact,” says Jesse Patterson of the League to Save Lake Tahoe.
If you join a cleanup (or start your own), take photos and videos, and write down the kinds of trash you find and where you find it. The numbers can be shocking: Since 2015, the volunteers at Lake Tahoe have found almost 40,000 cigarette butts. More importantly, you can use the data for advocacy. Patterson says their work has helped lead to local regulations, such as a Styrofoam ban.
So this year, look into joining a cleanup; it might even become a tradition. “We have people that come for the 5th of July only,” Patterson says. “They don’t even come for the fireworks.”
This story originally ran in the Summer 2023 issue. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.