Wildlife And Nature: Pesticides And Wild Birds


Pesticides are often seen as vital to our daily lives, or at the very least to our existing way of living. They have saved countless lives by limiting the spread of illnesses like typhus and malaria that are spread by mosquitoes and other insect pests. They are also vital to humanity’s attempts to cultivate and store enough food to sustain itself. The great majority of Canadians are unwittingly exposed to pesticides via the food they consume. Pesticides are used directly by many people, frequently without their knowledge: outdoor paints and wood preservatives, disinfectants, and flea collars, for example, include pesticides.

Despite their use, there is substantial evidence that pesticides are being overused and misapplied globally. The main source of worry is the possible health impacts of pesticide residues in our food, as well as the danger of injury to pesticide applicators. Pesticides, on the other hand, have been shown to have negative impacts on our animal species and their environment.

This information sheet is about birds and how pesticides impact them. Pesticides are sometimes employed expressly to safeguard birds and their habitat, such as to control harmful species that have been introduced, mistakenly or purposefully, into the birds’ ecosystem. More often than not, though, birds are innocent victims in our never-ending struggle against competing species.

What are pesticides?

Pesticide literally means “pest killer.” Chemicals, organisms, and technologies meant to eliminate, attract, or repel pests are all included in the legal definition. A pest is any creature that is disliked by humans at a given time or location. Various minerals and plant extracts were employed by the ancient Romans and Chinese, among others, to kill or repel insects and to battle fungus that caused plant disease. The widespread usage of synthetic chemical pesticides started in the 1930s and skyrocketed after WWII.

Are birds in trouble?

Many of our bird populations are behaving like the proverbial canary in the coal mine. Although a few species have definitely benefitted from human presence, those that occupy our farming and other open regions are more likely to be in decline than other species. This is especially true in Europe, where the majority of common agricultural birds are declining. The decreases have been attributed not just to habitat loss, but also to agricultural intensification, which includes the use of pesticides.

Pesticide types

Pesticides are classified based on the pests they manage. Insecticides, for example, are used to control insects such as mosquitoes and other biting flies, as well as agricultural, forest, turf, and household pests; herbicides are used to control unwanted plants on rights-of-way, lawns, golf courses, and cropland, as well as in orchards and tree plantations; fungicides are used to control fungi, which cause many plant diseases and plant rot; and rodenticides are used to control rod

Pesticide forms

Pesticides are available in a variety of forms, including aerosols, granules, baits, and powders or concentrates that are combined with water and administered as liquids. They may be sprayed from an aircraft or a sprayer hauled behind a tractor, dissolved in irrigation water, buried in the soil, sprinkled on the ground close to plants as granules or pellets, placed as a coating on seeds, or integrated into livestock collars or bait material.

The shape of a pesticide influences how a bird may come into touch with it: by mistaking it for food or drink, absorbing it via the feet, breathing it, or rubbing against a contaminated surface and eating it while preening its feathers. Granular insecticides (combined with clay, sand, or dried corn cob) are particularly dangerous to pecking birds because the granules may be mistaken for food or grit, which the birds use to grind their meal.

How do pesticides work?

A pesticide operates by interfering with a crucial biological activity, such as photosynthesis in plants, or by destroying a significant organ, such as the gut of a caterpillar. The most prevalent insecticides used today, organophosphates and carbamates, are characterized as “cholinesterase-inhibiting pesticides” because they kill by interfering with an enzyme necessary for nerve transmission. Pest populations that are repeatedly exposed to a pesticide may develop genetic resistance to it, rendering the chemical ineffective.

Pesticides do not “recognize” the target pest organisms. They are “programmed” to impact a process or organ, and they may affect any creature that possesses such a process or organ. As a result, a pesticide may kill both species that humans want to maintain and those that they classify as “pests.” To reduce the amount of nontarget species at danger, selective pesticides (those that impact just one category of pest organisms, such as flies) should be used rather than nonselective pesticides (those that are toxic to a broad range of organisms, such as mammals, birds, fish, and insects). A pesticide’s selectivity is so critical to its environmental effect.

Which pesticides most affect birds?

More than 30 authorized pesticides in Canada may damage wild birds. The majority of them are cholinesterase inhibitor organophosphates and carbamates. These pesticides are effective against a wide variety of insects and are often less costly than many alternatives, which contributes to their popularity. Unfortunately, they are acutely (i.e., instantly) poisonous and nonselective, harming the majority of vertebrates and invertebrates. They also degrade fast in water or soil, requiring them to be sprayed to crops more than once every growing season. When mistakenly consumed by or absorbed by a wild animal, they are swiftly detoxified and expelled – unless, of course, the animal dies first. Mammals metabolize organophosphates and carbamates significantly better than birds. Birds, for example, are 100 times more susceptible to the common pesticide diazinon than mammals.

Organochlorine pesticides, such as DDT, are similarly effective against a wide variety of insects, but they are hazardous for far longer. Although most organochlorines were phased out in Canada in the 1970s due to population losses in Peregrine Falcons and other bird species, remnants may still be detected in the environment (especially in regions where they were formerly heavily used, such as orchards) and animals. A dosage effective against insects was not necessary directly poisonous to birds; nevertheless, since the pesticides remained in the food chain for decades, it was conceivable for birds, particularly predatory species, to accrue a fatal amount over time. Some southern hemisphere nations that Canadian migratory birds visit still allow the use of persistent organochlorines.

Which pesticides are less toxic to birds?

Some pesticides are significantly more “target-specific,” meaning they are less hazardous to birds. They must, however, be taken with prudence. Synthetic pyrethroids, for example, are not typically highly harmful to birds or mammals, making them more selective than organophosphates or carbamates. They are, nevertheless, very harmful to fish, amphibians, and terrestrial and aquatic invertebrates. Selectivity is often a relative term.

Insect predators or insect parasites deployed in huge numbers to feed on a single pest, as well as microbes unique to the pest or a limited number of related insects, are probably the most target-specific of all insect management approaches. They have the least degree of impact on the natural environment. Bacillus thuringiensis kurstaki (Btk), a bacteria that damages caterpillar intestines, is a popular insect pesticide. The gypsy moth, spruce budworm, and European corn borer are all caterpillar pests.

Most herbicides and fungicides are not hazardous to birds or other animals. Several, however, have been demonstrated in laboratory experiments to interfere with avian reproduction (although not yet in the field). Furthermore, since certain herbicides and fungicides are hazardous to fish and earthworms, some birds may have less food-rich environment accessible following their usage.

Which birds are most vulnerable?

Some birds are more vulnerable to pesticide residues than others. Waterfowl and game birds, for example, are at danger because they consume vast amounts of foliage that has just been sprayed. Seed-eating songbirds are also at danger because they are drawn to insecticide granules and pesticide-treated seeds. Species that feed on pest insects, such as grasshoppers, are especially susceptible during pest outbreaks. Finally, scavengers and predators who hunt sluggish or crippled prey are at significant danger of consuming poisoned birds or animals.

How do pesticides affect wild birds?

Pesticides may directly kill birds, poison them without killing them, or have an impact on them by lowering their food or habitat supplies.

Lethal poisoning

Insects and plants that have been treated with pesticides may retain enough residue to kill hungry birds. Die-offs, like as those detailed in Box 1, may occur even when pesticides are administered responsibly and in accordance with label instructions – highlighting the necessity of monitoring product performance and reporting concerns. A little bird may be killed with only one or two small grains of the highly deadly organophosphate or carbamate pesticides. Furthermore, enough pesticide residues stay in the stomachs of poisoned birds and animals to kill predators and scavengers like eagles and crows.

Sublethal poisoning

Not all poisonings end in death right away. Poisoned birds may lose weight, increasing their risk of dying from other pressures like harsh weather. It may sing less often and hence fail to attract a partner or defend its territory. It may have smaller broods, feed less to its offspring, or behave abnormally towards its partner. A debilitated bird may also be less able to flee or defend itself against predators.

Impacts are not always predictable. Songbirds nesting on grassland sprayed with the hazardous pesticide carbofuran have survived and successfully raised their young, but gulls have died and Burrowing Owls have abandoned their nests and vanished under similar conditions (see Box 1). Survival is most likely owing to certain species’ capacity to remove the pesticide from the body before a deadly or incapacitating amount is obtained.

Food and habitat loss

Herbicides are used much more often than other pesticides in most developed nations. The nontarget plants that happen to be sensitive to the herbicide employed, as well as the protein-rich insects that reside on these plants, are all necessary food for birds, whether breeding adults or their broods. Pesticide usage also has an impact on food production in other ways. Pollinating bees are killed by insecticides, which reduces seed set and berry yield. Pesticide contamination of wetlands diminishes the “crop” of aquatic insects required for aquatic bird growth and development. Insecticides used on lawns diminish the quantity of earthworms, which impacts American Robins.

Pesticide usage on agriculture has decreased the quantity of safe habitat available for birds, which already rely on tiny woodlots, hedgerows, shelterbelts, and farm ponds for breeding and foraging. Even habitats surrounding agricultural fields may become a burden if birds are drawn into the fields and then poisoned by poisonous pesticides accidently. Herbicide usage, such as that used in forestry, may cause ground-dwelling birds to lose the leafy shelters that protect them from predators and inclement weather. The possibility of pesticide application drifting through the air and contaminating remote wetlands through water runoff is also a worry.

Herbicides and habitat

Britain conducted one of the greatest scientific investigations on the ecological consequences of pesticides in an agricultural region. It investigated how weed removal on fields affects the common Grey Partridge. Some plants vanished after spraying, as did insects discovered amid the green foliage. Hungry chicks, who rely on insects during their initial weeks of existence, were compelled to go farther in search of food. This sapped their vigor and rendered them more susceptible to predators and severe weather. The population was severely harmed when hedgerows were torn down, removing ideal nesting places.

What is the bottom line?

Pesticides have not yet wiped off any bird species in Canada, however Peregrine Falcons almost became extinct in eastern Canada in the 1960s until the government phased out DDT and other organochlorines. Only a tiny percentage of current pesticide bird fatalities are reported. Many poisoning instances go unreported because poisoned birds flee and the bodies disintegrate fast or are devoured by scavengers. In addition, some pesticide spills are misinterpreted as electrocution or trauma.

Researchers in Canada are just now starting to comprehend the long-term impacts of pesticide usage on avian numbers and diversity. Could pesticides have an unforeseeable impact on a keystone species (one that plays an important function in the ecosystem)? It is not always feasible to distinguish the impacts of pesticides from the effects of the many other causes that lead to pollution and habitat loss, both of which endanger certain animal species. Although British research imply that changes in habitat after herbicide usage may have more catastrophic repercussions for certain bird species than direct pesticide poisoning, it is unclear whether this holds true in North America, where we employ more highly toxic pesticides.

How can birds be protected?

Responsible pesticide use

Pesticides should only be used as a last option. It is feasible to lessen our reliance on pesticides. The term “integrated pest control” refers to the use of certain chemical pesticides in conjunction with other techniques. Growing pest-tolerant plant species, rotating crops, planting companion crops, releasing (after careful study) insects and microbes that prey on the pest, encouraging bird and insect species that provide natural pest control, and learning to profit from selected weed species are all options for environmentally responsible farmers, foresters, landscapers, and gardeners. They also meticulously calculate their fertilizer requirements, utilizing manure and compost to replace the soils: excellent soil creates healthy, vigorous crops that are more resistant to pests. As an extra bonus, lowering pesticide usage implies that insect populations will take longer to develop resistance, ensuring that pesticides are effective when required.

Using a registered product; reading and following the directions on the label when using any pesticide; using a selective pesticide rather than a nonselective pesticide; using the least amount needed to do the job; including the indirect (ecological) costs of pesticide use when calculating the benefits and costs of pesticide use; and determining whether the active ingredient (the ingredient that actually kills the pest) identified on the label affects the pest. Only through reporting will it be able to eliminate problematic compounds.

It is ultimately up to us to choose how much our civilization relies on pesticides. You can assist by knowing more about pesticides and how they influence ecosystems – in other words, by understanding about the costs and benefits of pesticide usage. As a customer, demand that pesticides that are especially harmful to animals not be used, and avoid using them yourself.

Government protection

Pesticides in Canada must be federally registered by the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) under Health Canada (PMRA information line: 1-800-267-6315). Pesticide sales and usage are further regulated by provincial law. Regulators evaluate the active ingredient’s toxicity to humans first, then forecast its toxicity to wild and domestic creatures based on laboratory testing on a select indicator species. With hundreds of pesticide products on the market in Canada, hundreds of bird species, and tens of thousands of wildlife species, wildlife toxicologists — scientists who investigate the effects of poisons on wild plants and animals — are primarily concerned with problem solving.

If a licensed pesticide is shown to have major environmental effects after its introduction, the product may be further restricted or prohibited, or the maker can voluntarily remove it. It is difficult to establish that a pesticide (especially one that degrades fast) caused the death of a bird or other wild creature. Citizen reports of strange deaths of wild birds or other wild species related with pesticide usage alert researchers to a possible concern.

Do we use a lot of pesticide products in Canada?

Pesticides are widely utilized in Canada, despite the fact that their intensity is lower than in many other developed nations. Herbicides were used on 67% of Canadian agriculture in the 1980s, and insecticides and fungicides on 11%. Forestry and nonagricultural uses (such as golf courses) contribute considerably to the overall pesticide-treated area.

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