Fertilizers and Pesticides: The Fatal Impact on Birds

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Can you picture a world without birds? The forests would fall quiet, your backyard feeder would remain empty.

But that’s not the worst of it. If all birds went extinct, it is predicted that every biome on Earth would face a loss of biodiversity so severe it would lead to the rapid destruction of the ecosystem, otherwise known as homogenization.

Juvenile Blackbird
Image by Grigory Shalik via Flickr

This would have fatal implications for all species, including humans. This thought experiment is not the start of a sci-fi novel. Today, scientists fear that future.

They warn us that if we don’t make significant changes within the next ten years, our bird populations may in fact disappear.

Facts Behind Reduction in Bird Populations

A study conducted between 1970 and 2022 found a reduction of more than half of US bird species, a loss of over three billion birds.

Grassland birds, typically seen on farms and in prairies, are experiencing the fastest loss with the well-known backyard birds not far behind at only one-third of their sustainable population size.

Sprague's Pipit
Image by Luke Theodorou via Flickr

This study placed seventy new species on the list of bird groups at their ‘tipping point,’ meaning that fifty percent or more of their population has died off in the last fifty years and they are now at severe risk of extinction.

And it isn’t only the experts chiming in.

Over the last few years, people have been slowing down and observing the natural world around them. Since 2020, bird watching trends have skyrocketed– people turned off their T.V.s and turned their eyes to the sky.

Bird watching apps currently report more incoming data than ever before showing what birds are living where and in what numbers.

Over the last few years, the data has shown reductions in numbers and bird watchers are publicly voicing their concern at the loss of their favorite backyard bird.

The Audubon, American Bird Conservancy, Cornell University, and the Soil Association agree that the top causes of bird population declines include climate change, expanding agriculture, unsustainable forest and prairie management, invasive species, domestic cats, and habitat loss.

However, the most fatal factor is fertilizer and pesticide use in large-scale farming, backyard gardening, and landscaping.

“We have the most compelling evidence to date that the dramatic increase in the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers has been the most significant driver of the declines of bird species and numbers” Gareth Morgan, Soil Association Head of Farming Policy

The Main Reason for Reductions in Bird Populations

The number one culprit: Neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids are a fatal family of pesticides that linger in soil for three years before breaking down.

Areas with 19.43 nanograms per liter or higher in substrates in the environment are shown to experience a 3.5 percent increased loss of bird populations per year.

Tractor Spraying
Image by nicephotog via Flickr

Neonicotinoids are heavily used in commercial farming, but you may be surprised that your backyard pesticide likely falls into this deadly family too.

Have you noticed less chirping out your back window since you started treating your lawn?

Common weed-and-feeds are especially dangerous. Imagine the green space provided by every lawn on your block including shelter, water in the forms of bird baths and puddles, food in the form of insects, seeds, and berries.

Now imagine this resource taken away from the bird population depending on it, or worse, it being poisoned. Your actions at home make a difference.

The proof is in the numbers. Ninety percent of all bird loss consists of common backyard birds, including sparrows, blackbirds, warblers, and finches.

The toxin works indirectly to malnourish birds in a myriad of ways. The toxin kills bug populations normally present in healthy, organic soils.

These insects are birds’ primary food source and are especially important during breeding season to sustain themselves and their offspring and to teach the offspring how to hunt.

Image by Ricardo Japur via Flickr

Birds may also eat seeds doused in the chemical, which can be lethal after only a few days.

Nectar-drinking birds, including hummingbirds, face additional risk due to ingested toxins and loss of plants needed for shelter and food.

Birds are additionally poisoned directly through contaminated drinking water.

Problems with Declining Bird Populations

Declining bird populations means big problems ecosystem-wide.

Birds are one of few biodiversity indicators, meaning their population size and overall health indicate the overall health of the ecosystem in which they live.

Image by Kevin Schonhofer via Flickr

In short, removing birds from the ecosystem has catastrophic consequences. Birds act as both predator and prey. They control insect populations and comprise a significant portion of several animals’ diets.

Birds are also pollinators and seed dispersers, helping to maintain plant life. They impact every aspect of nature and play a vital role.

Bird conservation consists of agroecological farming approaches using organic practices, sustainable land management, adding green spaces to urban environments, decreasing pollution and water contamination, restoring habitats, and preventing the introduction of invasive species.

As you can see, if we start with a focus on bird conservation, we can save the birds and make a much bigger impact on nature and the quality of human life at the same time. Bird conservation leads to safer environments for us to live in, healthier food sources, less carbon dioxide in the air, flood mitigation, and more. It also ensures the beautiful morning song outside your bedroom window every morning.

What Can You Do To Prevent This?

Bird conservation starts with you. It starts in your backyard first and foremost and continues through your word as you speak out on behalf of the voiceless. There are many things you can do to help.

  • Write to your local government officials about regulatory changes in farming practices and land management.
  • Put pressure on the EPA to take dangerous fertilizers and pesticides off the market by spreading awareness of the problem and speaking out.
  • Fight to list at-risk bird species under the Federal Environmental Species Act to encourage their protection and rehabilitation.
  • Influence food system reform through a nature-friendly diet.
  • Use nature-friendly gardening and landscaping techniques, including bird-safe fertilizer and traditional pest control, such as cornmeal or predatory insects whose species are naturally found in your area.
  • Teach others the benefits of bird conservation.

Birds are loved and appreciated by many. Let’s show them how much we care by saving them from extinction before it’s too late.

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