Every now and then, a wildlife photo can pull on your heartstrings and stir up angry feelings at the same time by exposing the oftentimes harsh juxtaposition of the natural world against our human-made one.
In 2017, there was the seahorse riding a Q-tip. This year, there is a mother bird feeding her chick a cigarette butt. It's very sobering.
Captured on camera by Karen Mason, a volunteer bird steward, the photo shows a black skimmer bird – cigarette butt in beak – delivering the litter to her white and brown speckled chick as a dinnertime snack.
Mason told CBS News she was “very angry” when she realized what exactly it was the mother bird was carrying and so, posted the images on various conservation sites and Facebook to raise awareness around the issue of littering.
Apparently, trash in St Pete Beach in Tampa, Florida (where the photo was taken), is "pretty common". "People don't seem to realize how harmful they are," she said.
"If you smoke, please don't leave your butts behind," Mason wrote in one caption.
"This Skimmer chick was offered a cigarette butt by its parent. It’s time we cleaned up our beaches and stopped treating them like one giant ashtray. #nobuttsforbabies," she wrote in another, posted a few days later.
Like straws, plastic bags, and coffee cups, cigarette butts are a source of plastic pollution. They are often made up of plastic fibers called cellulose acetate that can take anywhere between 18 months and 10 years to decompose. They are also the number one trash item found on beaches globally, Ocean Conservancy found in a report published last year.
"Many birds are curious about the things we casually discard, and will often investigate to try and find out if something is food or not," said a spokesperson for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in an interview with the BBC.
"Nature is struggling to adapt to the things we are doing to our planet; every year, we see more animals trapped, injured or killed by man-made products. We are even seeing litter being used as nesting material."
Hungry birds are not the only animals at risk of swallowing plastic. Sea mammals, crustaceans, turtles, and fish have all been found with plastic in their stomachs – and who can forget the mother whale carrying her dead calf (who probably died from microplastic ingestion) in Blue Planet II.
And so, until we can employ gangs of crows to do the job for us, don’t be a slob and discard of your cigarette butts responsibly.