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  • Writer's picturekendallmier

YOU CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE! Neonics and Bird Populations

The environmental news this week featured two important articles about factors affecting population numbers of wild bird species. One article described the sudden death of hundreds of migrating birds and the other demonstrated the toxic effects caused by a common class of insecticide. When we hear these stories, see the videos and read the posts on social media, we tend to retreat. Is it too big for one backyard to have an effect? Absolutely not! You can make a difference in many ways!

First, the dramatic sight of hundreds of migrating chimney swifts striking the NASCAR headquarters building in Charlotte, NC was highlighted across social media.

This isn’t unique to NASCAR or to Charlotte or to chimney swifts. Across the country, birds often strike buildings and homes to the downfall of the bird. What made this newsworthy was the numbers of migrating birds that strike buildings and the dramatic scenes of dead and dying birds on the national news. How can we make a difference? SHUT OFF THE LIGHTS! Let’s follow the advice we have given to our spouses and children for decades and ask our places of work to do the same. At least during the migration times of the year. Bright lights are disorienting to birds, leading to more strikes. Think of the positive affect on light pollution and think of the money saved, fossil fuel savings and a host of other advantages by just shutting off the lights.

For dramatic impact on migrating bird populations at a grand scale we can look to the recent Science article by Eng, Stutchbury and Morrissey. (

The authors outlined their findings that migratory birds exposed to neonicotinoid insecticides had reduced survival rates during migration and lower reproductive success once they made it to their breeding areas. Their study showed that White-Crowned Sparrows exposed to real-world levels of neonic insecticides had reduced feeding rate, lower body weight and lower fat stores. After the dose, the birds delayed the flight for an average of three days to recover which means three days of lost breeding opportunity. In some cases, the affected birds didn’t have the energy stores to make it to the breeding grounds.

How are neonics delivered and how are they used in the backyard environment? Neonics are commonly used in agriculture as seed treatments and in-home settings as root drenches for transplanted annuals. This method of delivery has good points and bad. The good is that this doesn’t require spraying over the top which would have large non-target insect effect considering neonics are highly toxic to almost all pollinator species – especially bees. This method also reduces the pesticide exposure to the consumer and landscapers because there is no residue on the leaves. The bad is that this class of pesticide is systemic, meaning that it is absorbed by the plant and delivered throughout the plant by way of the vascular system. Think of it this way, you get a shot of medicine in your arm and it travels throughout your body to an infection in your feet through your bloodstream.

Sunflower seed ready to plant with seed treatment applied. Note the purple dye indicating it has been treated with pesticide.

A common root dip pesticide.

Shortly after application or when the plants are small, the control of insects such as thrips and seedling insects such as flea beetle is very good and likely doesn’t cause a major effect on birds – most birds don’t eat dead bugs. The issue for birds arises when the concentration of the insecticide goes below the lethal dose for the target insect and a bird then consumes “sick” insects. A bird can eat hundreds or thousands of insects each day and if each insect is carrying a low dose of neonic, that adds up to a non-lethal but toxic dose for the bird. This is the case cited in the Science paper, which results in lower body weight and fat reserves. It takes time for the bird to metabolize the low dose neonic which delays migration until the bird is strong enough to continue the journey.

Seed eating birds can be similarly affected by neonicotinoid insecticides applied as seed treatments. As the plant moves resources from the roots and stem to the seeds, a low dose rate of systemic insecticide can move to the seeds. Think of the number of seeds your birds eat and think about the urgency of the migration timing with breeding at the end of the journey. Bird seed from plants with neonic seed treatment or surface insecticide application or fumigant application during storage can leave behind low dose pesticide residue which can reduce the fitness of the birds you are hoping to aid.

By now it is obvious where this blog is heading. YOU CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE IN YOUR BACKYARD by feeding pesticide free birdseed, such as Prairie Melody™. Prairie Melody™ uses no synthetic pesticides, including no neonicotinoids, in the production, storage or packaging of our black oil sunflower birdseed. As part of our grower journey to USDA Organic production, such crop inputs are forbidden, and we are quite happy with that. USDA Organic inspectors and certifiers conduct annual verification of the field and the grower records to assure the customers this is true. At Prairie Melody™, our production fields are all within five miles of our office and we pay close attention. We invite you to try Pesticide Free Prairie Melody™ and tell us what you think. We are confident that you will appreciate the double clean quality and the knowledge that the birdseed you feed is not hurting the birds you are trying to help. I think the birds will appreciate it, too.

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