Fact Check

Is This Warning About Chewing Gum's Fatal Risk to Birds Accurate?

Eating gum thrown on the ground causes birds to die?

Published Jun 12, 2012

This viral meme claims that chewing gum on the ground looks like bread to birds, and, if they eat it, they die slowly.
This viral meme claims that chewing gum on the ground looks like bread to birds, and, if they eat it, they die slowly.
Claim:
A viral meme accurately depicts chewing gum's fatal risk to birds.
Context

The meme doesn't display a photo of a bird dying from eating a piece of discarded gum. Rather, the image is said to show a swallow that refused to abandon his mate after she was hit by a car and subsequently died. Also, wildlife experts say, while it's possible that a bird could fatally choke on chewed gum like any other food, "chewing gum, in and of itself, is not and would not be a fatal substance for a bird to ingest."

For more than a decade, a meme has circulated online to supposedly warn people against leaving chewed gum in places accessible to birds because they will eat it and die. Readers have asked us to confirm or deny whether that's true.

The meme claims: 

Gum thrown on the ground looks like bread to birds, which they try to eat it. It fouls their entire systems and prevents them ingesting any real nourishment or water. So they die slowly. Share this and be responsible with your trash.

First off, the picture displayed above has nothing to do with a bird dying from eating a piece of discarded gum. It's one of a sequence of much-circulated photographs from 2009 that was said to show a swallow that refused to abandon his mate after she was hit by a car and subsequently died.

As for the issue of whether ingesting discarded gum poses a general danger to birds, Pennsylvania television station WHP's "Lie or Legit" feature tackled this question back in 2009 and cited two wildlife experts who said that such a death might be a possibility (if nothing more than a remote one):

This week, a CBS 21 News viewer has a question about a sticky situation.

Jerry from Harrisburg writes in an email to CBS 21 News Anchor Mike Parker:

'My wife says that if you throw gum on the street, a bird will eat the gum and die from it. Will a bird attempt to eat the gum?'

For the answer, we took Jerry's question to several Central Pennsylvania wildlife experts, who deal with different species of birds.

In one response, ZooAmerica (Hershey, PA) Director Troy Stump responded via email with the following:

'After careful consideration and discussion among our zoo staff, Here is our conclusion. Chewing gum, in and of itself, is not and would not be a fatal substance for a bird to ingest and may draw some birds' interest. However, there are many variables, and we know better than to say anything could never happen. It is conceivable that a very small bird could attempt to eat a very large piece of gum. Obviously anything that might be large enough to lodge in an airway, be it bird or human, can be a problem.'

Also answering Jerry's question, was Ern Tobias of Lake Tobias Wildlife Park near Halifax, Dauphin County. Speaking to CBS 21 News over the phone, he said this about his experience with birds and gum ... and monkeys:

'The birds we have here at the park, it's unlikely that they would even try to eat it. They might peck at it once or twice, and realize it's not something they want to eat. We've never had a bird die from eating gum. 

'The monkeys on the other hand, they do pick up gum and eat it, unfortunately. But just like some people swallow gum, I've never seen it hurt the monkeys, either.'


Sources

Sources:

    WHP-TV [Harrisburg, PA].   "Lie or Legit: Bird Eats Gum and Dies."

    4 August 2009.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.