Storks and other European birds are making massive waste sites their winter feeding grounds, abandoning their usual migration routes to Africa, according to a new study. While this may be a convenient way for these birds to conserve energy and find food, consuming trash is not particularly safe and their yearly absence from Africa could have a negative impact on food chains and ecosystems there. 

"It's very risky. The birds can easily eat pieces of plastic or rubber bands, which can get stuck in their throats, and they can die," Andrea Flack, lead researcher from Germany's Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, said in a statement. "And we don't know about the long term consequences. They might eat something toxic and damage their health. We cannot estimate that yet."

In the latest study, researchers fitted 70 white storks with miniature GPS tags to track the birds as they traveled across Europe and Asia during the first five months of their lives.

Generally speaking, white storks leave their nests between July and September, traveling upwards of 5,000 miles to warmer areas in Africa. However, tracking storks from eight different colonies in Armenia, Greece, Poland, Russia, Spain, southwest Germany, Tunisia and Uzbekistan, revealed many of the birds cut their migrations short to snack on "junk food" or food waste and insects found at nearby landfills. 

Overall, researchers found birds from Russia, Greece, and Poland pursued the usual migratory route, flying as far as South Africa. However, those from Spain, Germany, and Tunisia stayed north of the Sahara desert, finding food without the effort of flying such long distances.

"There is some sort of human impact that causes these birds to change their migration strategy," Dr. Flack told BBC News. "Those that stay north of the Sahara seem to have advantages from feeding on these landfill sites in Morocco. For a white stork it's a good place; they find a lot of food there. But of course it's a risk; one wrong food and they're dead."

While it is still soon to tell if the benefits of plentiful food outweigh the risks of scavenging on landfills, researchers say migrating birds affect ecosystems both at home and at their winter destinations. Therefore, changing their travel plans could have a domino-like effect. For instance, white storks provide pest control by feeding on locusts and other insects that may now get out of hand. 

These findings, recently published in the journal Science Advances, highlight yet another way humans influence the migration and behavior of animals.

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