When we think of litter, we probably have a pretty solid idea of what that is. Maybe it’s a plastic bag, or a chips packet. What about a drink bottle? Sure. But would you consider tossing your banana peel into the bushes as OK to do because ‘it will biodegrade’? How about your sandwich crust? It could be assumed that most people have tossed one or more of these organic items away into nature, not even considering that they are indeed, a litter bug. In reality, the concept of ‘litter’ is a bit blurrier than we give it credit. When you’re out in nature, the right thing to do is leave no trace of your visit at all – remove all items you brought in with you, including or orange peel and other organic matter.
Keeping this in mind, what does litter on conservation land mean for New Zealand’s native critters? Most can understand how an animal consuming a bottle cap isn’t exactly beneficial to its health, but some of the unexpected effects of litter on our wildlife are intriguing.
Consider the kea. This unique, nationally endangered parrot and its curious personality have reached international stardom, made famous for their mischievous and sometimes destructive behaviour. The birds’ astoundingly high intelligence and love of all things novel commonly gets them into trouble. This penchant for playfulness is more common in young kea and is known as neophilia (the love of new things). This is why kea will flock to human occupied areas within their natural ranges, as they have endless fun with man-made items.
Kea are omnivorous, meaning that they scour the high country for fruits, shoots, nectar, seeds and if they’re lucky, a juicy huhu grub. This generalist foraging behaviour has led them to ‘scrounge’ for food associated with humans – including your food scraps.
If you happen to visit any of these areas, you’ll find signs declaring: “DO NOT FEED KEA”. Much like our beloved pets, human food products can be lethal to kea. Not only is our food unhealthy for their systems, it can also temporarily reduce their appetites to allow them more time to tamper with objects, essentially encouraging their destructive behaviour.
To prevent kea from messing with your stuff and putting themselves in danger, it’s our responsibility to help keep their environment safe. It’s like having a toddler or curious puppy around. So, when you are going somewhere with kea make sure you remove all surrounding temptation – loose clothing, backpacks, food and brightly coloured objects.
Don’t forget that it’s not just kea that are at risk. All of our native wildlife will benefit from having less litter in their habitat. If you’re camping in non-alpine regions, there’s a chance you could have a few cheeky weka poking around your campsite. Like kea, they’re attracted to human activity and they won’t hesitate to pilfer your goods too. Make sure to tuck everything that could be tampered with safely away from prying beaks.
Protecting New Zealand’s native species can be as simple as putting that apple core in your backpack. By keeping all – and we mean all – of your litter to yourself, and making sure your gear is kept secure you’ll keep our birds safe, as well as allowing them to maintain their natural foraging behaviour. In addition, you’ll also reduce the number of invasive predators being attracted to the site. Organic waste can unnecessarily attract rats, mice, stoats and ferrets to precious areas on conservation land.
What should we do with our rubbish if there isn’t a bin around? Simple – take it with you. Whether it’s your banana peel or the cling film you wrapped your snacks in, take it all out with you to dispose of properly. You could even pick up someone else’s litter that you’ve spotted. Because that’s the Kiwi way.
If you see a bird or any other native animal entangled in rubbish, or in unnatural danger, please call the DOC hotline: 0800 362 468