Do fireworks harm animals? We ask an expert | Animals

They’re a staple of our New Year’s Eve celebrations, but do firework displays harm wildlife – and should they be cancelled? I asked Prof Claudia Wascher, whose research explored the impact of 31 December on birds.

Arguments about fireworks have been raging for years, usually between someone whose pet is upset and someone who thinks that person is a killjoy. Yet there’s little science. Why?
I assume it’s because fireworks happen at night, so it is difficult to study wild animals then. Also, researchers are off enjoying New Year’s Eve, too.

Fair play – researchers deserve a night off.
There have been a couple of nice studies, though. One used weather radar images to observe birds fleeing during fireworks. Another used tracking data to show there is a long-term effect on migratory birds.

The lack of “official” data hinders action. Or maybe we see wild animals as more resilient.
Interesting, though my feeling is it’s just not in people’s minds. We don’t have the wild animals in front of us, and often they’re hiding anyway.

So how did you observe the wildlife?
We didn’t observe. We implanted sensor/transmitter packages into geese, which recorded heart rate and body temperature every two minutes, over roughly 18 months. The mean heart rate over the first hour of the new year was massively increased. That means the animal is using a lot of energy.

They’ll just collapse, exhausted?
Geese normally sleep on water, but they all took flight – it was a panic response. They wanted to get away from the fireworks, but couldn’t, because fireworks were everywhere. Also geese are not massively equipped to fly during the night, so there’s the risk of injury, getting lost, etc.

This reminds me of a story from last year, where hundreds of birds were found dead on New Year’s Day. What is it specifically about fireworks – sound or light?
Light disturbances have an effect. One study found that a light installation to commemorate 9/11 impacted migrating birds – they ended up changing their route. But I have a strong gut feeling it’s more the noise.

Exploding chemicals in the sky probably isn’t a great idea. Research shows that microplastics from the fireworks enter the water system.
We need to understand the whole impact – economic, animal welfare, human welfare. Figure that out, and maybe it won’t be about cancelling everything, but just giving it more thought. Do we need fireworks in every garden? Maybe there are alternatives.

Drone light display! Well, once the technology is good enough. Apparently they gave it a go in Australia and all the AI drones got confused and fell into the river. Womp womp.
I’m all for new ideas.

What could readers be doing to help wildlife during this time?
Aside from not having fireworks, create shelters by not clearing dead wood and leaves so animals can hide. Because you can’t bring wildlife inside for the day and play them classical music.

Trying would certainly make for a memorable New Year’s Eve.
Nooo, don’t say it, or someone will!