New Study Shows Very Common Pesticides Disrupt Migratory Birds’ Sense of Direction.

Many songbird populations are in steep decline. These losses have many well known causes – free-roaming house cats, buildings and cars loom large as threats – yet some of the causes remain a mystery. An alarming study published November 2017 in the journal Nature has confirmed that two of the most common pesticides in widespread use in North America and elsewhere are a very significant part of the problem. The study shows that both chemicals significantly impair exposed White-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) ability to orient directionally; – a disability which would have obvious negative impact on a migrating songbird. One of the chemicals in the study also caused significant loss of body mass, also imperiling birds during migration. Impact to populations is not in the scope of this study, but the impairments that were shown, and the likelihood that these risks would be at their most threatening when Spring migration and industrial seed sowing coincide, it is easy to extrapolate the serious and tragic consequences.

Imagine landing in a freshly sown field somewhere between your gentle winter home and the fulsome days of summer – the field the only resource left after the prairies and forests were industrialized by farming – and as soon as you eat you begin to forget your way, where you were going, perhaps even why. If the poison is also causing you to starve, well, you won’t last long – a very dim bright side. In neither case will you make it out of there – make it to your destination, the place where you and your mate get about the business of bringing the next generation of your kind into the world…

A White-crowned Sparrow nestling/fledgling in care at HWCC is examined after admission. Too old to keep in the nest, too young to fly, this bird was was successfully returned to her parents. 

Songbirds moving north are on a mission – the mission of life. Exposed to these poisons, instead they stagger, lost in the vast sea of a chemically restrained Mother Earth, like Dorothy, the Tinman, the Lion, and the Scarecrow, but not done in by the poppies, but rather the chemicals that had been sprayed on them to kill all adjacent life.

For both chemicals in the study it took 2 or more weeks after their last exposure while being maintained in captivity, for the birds who were subjected to the toxin to recover their lost weight and their lost sense of direction.*** Of course, given the nature of agriculture across the so-called heart land, there is no such thing as a real-world post-exposure period of convalescence, outside of potential intervention by wildlife rehabilitators, – a shot in the dark.

White-crowned Sparrow at HWCC enjoys a mealworm before be taken back to her family.

The two pesticides in the study are both in very wide use, especially in the US, yet are also controversial for the links that have been shown between them and observed health impacts for people and wildlife. One, imidacloprid , is a neonicotinoid, such as are currently implicated as a factor in bee colony collapse disorder, among other concerns, and the other, chlorpyrifos, is an organophosphate with its own checkered past. Banned by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), after a significant legal process, at the end of 2016, under the new administration, Scott Pruitt, the new head of the Trump administration’s EPA (TEPA), reversed the process of banning the pesticide.

Neonicotinoids in high concentrations have already been shown to be among the causes of population decline in insect-eating songbirds, now this study shows that even very small amounts – the amount found on one treated seed – can impair songbirds during the most critical time in their lives, when they are migrating to their breeding grounds.

The threats posed to songbirds by society are extreme. Our human built world, in multiple ways, kills songbirds in the billions annually in just the US alone!

Human-caused avian mortality ranked by deaths annually.

How many songbirds are killed by these two chemicals alone is not yet known. But what we do know, is that the problem is huge and the very pinnacle of executive power in this nation, at least, is unconcerned, to say the least, about the fate of wild birds. If nothing else this means that co-existing, peacefully, with our wild neighbors, and the wild in whole, is always more urgent. As long as our civilization continues to advance in the direction of death and extinction, hope lies in the actions we make locally, on the ground, literally in our own backyards.

A fledgling White-crowned Sparrow successfully reunited with parents by HWCC/BAX staff.

There are many things on the list of threats to songbirds that we can reduce as we work toward eliminating, today, right now. We can respect all nests. We can keep our cats indoors (bonus, it’s better for cats, too!!!) We can stop trimming branches during nesting season. We can plant bird friendly native plants. We can slow down when we drive and we can drive less. We can help out individuals when they’re in need. That’s the primary thing that we do – help out our individual wild neighbors whenever they get caught in a jam.

Your support makes our work possible. Even if the worst befalls us, still we’ll need to care for the innocent wild victims who suffer from of our mistakes, accidents and thoughtless greed. Our wild neighbors will always need you to help when society, in ascendancy or ruin, does its dirty work. Thank you for being here. Thank you for keeping our doors open.


*** For the record, the kind of experiment performed that got these results is not endorsed by Bird Ally X. The pesticides in question have been long known to disrupt the ecological systems into which they are introduced – deliberately imperiling the lives of White-crowned Sparrows, without their consent, is not a right that people have, regardless of their intentions. This information, if it is critical to have in order to make decisions, which is anything but a foregone conclusion, must be gotten in ways that don’t violate the rights of others. Study subjects have the same rights to their independent autonomy and ownership of their own bodies that humans are supposed to have .

It’s hard to find the ground to stand on which might allow us to see whose freedom is meaningful and whose is not. We need a much clearer view of the world and our place within the living network we share. It is a common belief in public service that citizens are to be protected from “false negatives” – that is, finding no harm detected where harm does in fact exist. Our modern history is rife with examples of false negatives being foisted on an unsuspecting public with disastrous result: automobile safety, tobacco use, radioactive fallout, DDT, the list is endless. False positives, attributing observed harm to the study object in error, may be frustrating to those who want to advance on some project, or inject the latest fad into farmed fish, but it is the proponent’s obligation to prove those positives as false – it is not the public nor the agencies charged with protecting the public’s health, well-being, and rights, mission, let alone obligation, to protect companies and governing bodies from the demands of due diligence. At least the same respect is owed to the autonomous lives of our wild neighbors. We must consider them as sentient and with the same rights of existence as our own. It is the burden of those who would capture, kill, plunder, poison, for reasons noble to foul to demonstrate that consent is not needed…