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Fizz, bang, whoosh... PANIC!

Fireworks going off above a treeline

Should we avoid using fireworks in areas with a large wildlife population? ARU study reports soaring heart rates and a desire to flee.

It’s that time of year again. With crisp autumn leaves underfoot, people up and down the land are preparing to enjoy the traditional whoosh and bang of fireworks.

But as the skies light up in a technicolour display of sound and light, have you ever thought how the surrounding wildlife cope?

We can all see that our domestic pets often get frightened by fireworks - but according to new research from ARU, the displays also have a huge effect on birds. This is one of the first scientific studies to examine the impact on animals in the wild.

Scientists looked at 20 resident wild greylag geese at Almsee Lake in Austria over 12 months. This time, the focus was not on Bonfire Night, but the New Year, when nearby villagers traditionally have firework displays.

In the study, each bird was fitted with a temporary transmitter to record its heart rate and temperature, measuring levels of psychological stress.

A goose starting to fly from a lake

Greylag goose taking flight. Image credit: Claudia Wascher

When the fireworks began at midnight, researchers found that heart rates increased by a whopping 96%, and body temperatures by 3%. Even after the fireworks ended, the rates remained higher than normal, with temperatures taking several hours to return to the initial levels.

Claudia Wascher

Dr Claudia Wascher, Associate Professor in ARU's School of Life Sciences and lead author of the report, says: "When we want to know something from animals, we cannot ask them, so we have to study their behaviour."

"So, we compared the data from other months of the year, and we saw a massive increase in heartrate and temperature after midnight. It shows very obviously that something is going on, and it’s not good."

In fact, the findings point to significant distress and panic with the geese taking to the skies to flee, despite the birds not normally flying at night. Scientists believe this physiological response is likely to be mirrored in other wildlife too:

“It would be very difficult to assume the geese are absolutely extraordinary. It is very deep-rooted in all animals to try to get away from danger, a general biological response. And it’s part of survival – if you don’t run away from something you will likely be eaten alive by a predator or hit by lightning or something like that.”

The study, published in Conservation Physiology, also found that older birds reacted no differently to younger ones, suggesting that they do not get used to the barrage of sound over time.

Two flying geese a snow-covered woodland

Greylag geese in the air. Image credit: Claudia Wascher

The implications are wider than simply managing stress levels. Fleeing the area at night causes birds to use up extra energy, at a time of year when food is hard to find. For some wildlife, this could be a matter of life and death:

"There will be cases where small songbirds die because of fireworks because they’re so stressed. They’re spending so much energy trying to flee from these things they cannot escape, and they will starve to death the next day."

So, what do we do about this? Well, Claudia is not calling for the Firework Police to cancel Bonfire Night. But she believes these warnings must be taken seriously:

"We all enjoy fireworks, but the study shows that wild geese are something we should worry about, and all wildlife is something we should worry about.

"It’s not about radically changing things, but I would ask for people to be very considerate about the consequences for areas with large wildlife populations. There are alternatives to fireworks, such as drone displays, and having conversations around this is going to be really important."

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