Birds Appear to 'Self-Medicate' With Our Cigarette Butts

Incorporating nicotine into their nests keeps parasites out. Nature is training flying urban Roombas.

smoking bird 615.jpg

We never actually established why birds suddenly appear every time you are near. It might just be because you are one of the terrible, horrible people who throws cigarette butts on the ground everywhere. When a little bird waddles out and picks one up and uses it to build a nest, though, you are sort of redeemed, in that the world becomes a better place for its bird family. 

Research published today in the journal Biology Letters followed urban birds and measured the amount of cellulose acetate (from cigarette filters) in their nests. The nests with more butts had fewer parasites.

SHARK300200.jpg

[Suarez-Rodriguez, et al. Biology Letters]


We've known for a while that nicotine is an arthropod repellant. (Are smokers less susceptible to ear mites?) And while we know that birds historically bring certain plants into their nests that will clear our parasites, the biologists are not clear on whether the birds are knowingly employing this effect with the cigarettes. They write, "Urbanization changes the abundance and type of resources upon which birds depend ... Potential changes in host-parasite interactions as a consequence of urbanization may thus influence which species are most able to exploit urban landscapes."

I've said it before and I'll say it again: The birds are in control. If researchers can prove that birds are doing this purposely, it would be what they call zoological "self-medication" -- just like what we do with cigarettes, except they're medicating themselves against infectious parasites instead of existential fear that they may be incapable of love. Or being loved. That's why we smoke, right?


Presented by

James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

The Case for Napping at Work

Most Americans don't get enough sleep. More and more employers are trying to help address that.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Case for Napping at Work

Most Americans don't get enough sleep. More and more employers are trying to help address that.

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

Video

Playing An Actual Keyboard Cat

A music video transforms food, pets, and objects into extraordinary instruments.

Video

Stunning GoPro Footage of a Wildfire

In the field with America’s elite Native American firefighting crew

Video

The Man Who Built a Forest Larger Than Central Park

Since 1979, he has planted more than 1,300 acres of trees.

More in Health

Just In