OPED: Pesticides toxic for birds, other creatures

Jeremy Barnes
Springfield Township

Like many others, I feed the birds in the wintertime and have noticed in the past two years an apparent decline in both the variety and numbers of birds visiting the feeder tables. My question is, am I, with the best of intentions, actually killing the birds I am trying to help by providing seed-eaters with grain?

Neonicotinoid pesticides were introduced in the 1990s and were rapidly approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for many agricultural and residential uses despite serious concerns from its own scientists, in part because of the strong desire to find a replacement for the dangerous organophosphate pesticides (nerve gases) in common use at the time.

Neonicotinoids, so named because their chemical structure is similar to that of nicotine, are a class of synthetic pesticides used to prevent insect damage on a variety of crops; as such they are widely used on farms, landscapes and gardens under a variety of brand names. They are sprayed on crops, turf, and fruit trees, but more pervasively seeds of crops such as corn, canola and soy beans are soaked in them before being planted. Butterflies, lady birds, bumble bees, aphids ...  they are not selective in whom they kill.

It is difficult to understand the potency of these chemicals. If we take DDT as our base, the most commonly used neonic, Imidacloprid (trade name Gaucho) is 7,000 times as toxic as DDT. And at 10,000 times the toxicity of DDT, Clothianidin (trade name Poncho) is the most toxic of all the neonicotinoids…so far. 

Not only are neonics relatively stable, meaning that they persist in the environment for a long time and degrade comparatively slowly in sunlight, they also leach into the surrounding soil, water and air, perhaps as far as fifty feet from the original plant. Thus milkweed plants, growing in fields adjacent to say a corn field, will absorb sufficient neonics to kill the larvae of the monarch butterfly. 

The initial appeal of neonicotinoid pesticides was their perceived selectivity in that they target insects with what was thought to be little direct harm to mammals or birds. Reality has proven to be more complex.

My first awareness came as a beekeeper, in particular on-going studies which show the presence of neonics in hives, in pollen, and even of late, in honey, even if in minuscule quantities. Some were introduced by beekeepers themselves in an attempt to control mites in the bee colonies, but the majority are brought back by managed bees as they forage on treated plants. 

We need to remember here that yes, honey bees pollinate about one third of the foods we eat, but more importantly, together with wild bees and bumblebees, which are also in decline due to habitat loss, they play a crucial role in pollinating wild trees and plants, including the extensive forests of Pa., which are critical in terms of turning carbon dioxide emissions into oxygen.

Neonics were thought to be less toxic to birds than the organophosphates and it now appears that their toxicity has been underestimated. For many bird species, chronic exposure leads to reproductive impacts. The situation is worst for birds feeding directly on coated seeds: The ingestion of a single coated corn kernel can kill a bird the size of a sparrow and twelve such kernels can kill a bird the size of a grouse.

Birds that are not seed-eaters are also affected. Insectivorous bird populations are experiencing significant declines due to loss of the insect populations they feed on, not to mention the impact of bioaccumulation, as a contaminated insect is eaten by a larger insect, which in turn is eaten by a bird. The same pattern is observed in aquatic environments, where pesticide residues accumulate, invertebrates die off, and aquatic bird populations decline. This was one of the dire consequences of DDT.

There are increasing numbers of studies being published with distressing findings, none of which are contradicted directly by the bio-chemical industry; rather they make general denials designed to sow doubt in the public mind about the legitimacy of those studies while they continue to focus on net profits rather than environmental health. Shades here of the tobacco industry and it’s manipulation of the FDA as well as the public.

Are these chemicals impacting us? You bet they are, and we cannot avoid their omnipresence in the air we breathe, the food we eat and the water we drink. To the agrichemical business, Joe Public is no more than collateral damage. Yet we are not powerless. Just as with the tobacco industry in the 1990s, even a well-funded industry cannot withstand informed consumers who vote daily with their wallets.  

So, when I put out bird food that contains cracked corn, millet seeds, sunflower seeds, am I offering our feathered friends a dangerous toxic mix? Sadly, I suspect I am. 

— Jeremy Barnes is a Springfield Township resident.

Jeremy Barnes