First the Bees, Now the Birds: The Pesticides Silencing America's Songbird Population

Pesticides linked to massive bee die-offs are killing songbirds in unprecedented numbers, say bird conservationists.

March 19, 2013

A silent, songbird-less spring is coming if toxic pesticides aren't banned, warns a new report.

The very same pesticides accused of causing massive declines in honeybee populations are just as culpable in the loss of songbirds, finds a new report published by the American Bird Conservancy.


The pesticides in question, neonicotinoids, are based on nicotine, a natural insecticide, which causes paralysis and, eventually, death in both insects and non-target animals, such as honeybees and songbirds. There are more than 300 types of neonicotinoid insecticides, and they're used both in agricultural products—they're used to coat seeds in an effort to keep insects from eating the crop as well as being sprayed directly on crops—and in pest-control sprays intended for home lawn and garden use. Introduced in the early 1990s, neonicotinoids are now the most widely used insecticides in the world.

And that popularity carries a heavy burden, the report found. After analyzing more than 200 studies conducted by both independent and industry-funded scientists, the authors called for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ban these pesticides' use until a more thorough investigation into their safety is conducted. 

Bee-Killing Pesticide "Unacceptable," Europe Says

"A single corn kernel coated with a neonicotinoid can kill a songbird," said Cynthia Palmer, coauthor of the report and pesticides-program manager for the conservancy, in a statement accompanying the report. "Even a tiny grain of wheat or canola treated with the oldest neonicotinoid—called imidacloprid—can fatally poison a bird. And as little as 1/10th of a neonicotinoid-coated corn seed per day during egg-laying season is all that is needed to affect reproduction."

The group is accusing the EPA and other regulatory agencies around the world of woefully underestimating the damage these pesticides are doing to birds and non-target insects. The problem, the report found, is that the agencies are using birds like mallard ducks, which are more resistant to the pesticides, to determine neonicotinoids' toxicity, and in doing so, the agencies are exposing more vulnerable species to the pesticides as they continue to grant approvals for new uses for them. The European Union, on the other hand, is expected to ban these toxic pesticides as early as July of this year.

Until the EPA follows Europe's lead, here are ways you can keep pesticides out of your home and protect songbirds:

• Use natural pest-control methods around the home to avoid exposing songbirds to these unhealthy chemicals.

• Make your own bird food. Birdseed contaminated with these deadly pesticides was pulled from store shelves—after being sold for two years—in 2008. To avoid another such calamity with commercial birdseed, use these tips to make migratory birds fall in love with your backyard.

• Support organic farmers who don't use neonicotinoids—or any synthetic pesticides, for that matter—and who rely on safer pest-control techniques that don't pose fatal threats to songbirds.

Tags: birds