Celebrating the nation’s Independence Day with fireworks is an enduring tradition, but fireworks can be a source of distress and danger to wildlife. Dr. Sam Sander, a clinical professor of zoo and wildlife medicine at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, spoke with News Bureau life sciences editor Diana Yates about how fireworks affect wildlife and the environment, and how to minimize the risks.
Has anyone studied the effects of fireworks on wildlife?
Studies from around the world have evaluated how fireworks celebrations affect wildlife. Unfortunately, fireworks tend to occur at night when it is more difficult to observe animal behaviors, making it more challenging to study. There is even more anecdotal evidence that fireworks disrupt these populations.
What did the research find?
Despite the difficulty of studying wildlife behaviors at night, studies have documented startle responses in birds in association with fireworks displays. The loud and spontaneous explosions of fireworks can incite flight responses and disorientation in these species. In particular, researchers have found that birds sometimes take flight en masse, flying remarkably longer and higher than normal. These congregations of birds can be so densely packed that they are detectable with weather radar, and so extreme that they result in a marked drain on the birds’ energy reserves. In one documented example, birds flew so far out to sea that there was no possibility they would be able to make the return trip.
Fireworks are sometimes employed to intentionally discourage wildlife from using particularly vulnerable human-use areas. For example, fireworks are used to protect crops, keep wildlife away from airport runways and drive nuisance animals away from towns. From studies and anecdotal reports, we know that the shock of the explosions causes wildlife to flee. Even in these purposeful efforts, animals have been observed running into roadways, flying into buildings and other permanent structures, and abandoning their nests and young.
Are wild animals the only ones affected?
Unfortunately, no. Studies indicate that up to half of pet dogs display a fear of loud noises, with the most common triggers being thunderstorms and fireworks. Dogs and cats have shown fear responses to fireworks, including vocalizing, hiding, cowering, shaking and running away. Even a survey of owners of pet guinea pigs and rabbits found that more than one-third of those animals appeared fearful in response to fireworks. Animal-control officials across the U.S. report increases in lost pets each year in association with Fourth of July celebrations. Underscoring this impact, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals reports that one in five lost pets go missing after being scared by loud noises, including from fireworks displays.
It isn’t just animals that experience these negative responses to fireworks. People, too, can have extreme and troublesome reactions. Those with sensory processing disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder, in particular, can be triggered by fireworks. These responses can include hyperarousal symptoms, extreme fear, panic attacks, nightmares, flashbacks and other marked negative impacts on their mental health.
Are there other problematic effects of fireworks beyond inciting a fear response?
Yes, though the extent of this is an understudied area of research at present. Fireworks displays cause heavy smoke that can be irritating to the eyes and respiratory tract of animals and people. Water pollution also is a concern, as the heavy metals used in fireworks rain down and wash into waterways. Additionally, the risk of wildfires from fireworks is a serious concern in some regions. We know all too well the devastation a wildfire can create for natural habitats and human communities.
An additional consideration is that fireworks canisters are not completely destroyed by the explosion, and the debris pollutes the environment. If swallowed, fireworks debris cannot be broken down by an animal's digestive system. This can lead to the death of the animal or, in some cases, offspring being inadvertently fed the foreign material.
Are there ways of limiting the potentially harmful effects of fireworks on wildlife?
State and national ordinances restrict the use of fireworks near protected habitat to minimize the impact of these celebrations on wildlife. Taking heed when planning community or personal celebrations and considering the presence of wildlife, wind direction, fire risk and debris fallout give us an opportunity to actively avoid creating problems that persist after the celebrations have ended. Silent fireworks are another option. They create a visual effect that is similar to “normal” fireworks without the percussive bang, minimizing the stress response fireworks can induce in animals and people. Another option is to switch to a different type of light show – such as one created with drones or lasers – to define the celebration.
Fourth of July celebrations are meant to be jovial and bring us together as a community. While they can have negative impacts, fireworks displays are not inherently bad. As we better understand and acknowledge the negative effects fireworks can have, we have the ability and responsibility to evolve our practices and to do better. Stay safe and have a happy Independence Day!