American songbirds are being wiped out by banned pesticides

By Leonard Doyle in Washington
Friday, 4 April 2008

The number of migratory songbirds returning to North America has gone 
into sharp decline due to the unregulated use of highly toxic 
pesticides and other chemicals across Latin America.

Ornithologists blame the demand for out-of-season fruit and 
vegetables and other crops in North America and Europe for the 
destruction of tens of millions of passerine birds. By some counts, 
half of the songbirds that warbled across America's skies only 40 
years ago have gone, wiped out by pesticides or loss of habitat.

Forty-six years ago, the naturalist Rachel Carson wrote Silent 
Spring, a study of the ravages caused to wildlife, especially birds, 
by DDT. The chemical's use on American farms almost eradicated entire 
species, including the peregrine falcon and bald eagle.

The pesticide was banned and bird numbers recovered, but new and 
highly toxic pesticides banned by the US and European Union are being 
widely used in Latin America.

Because of changed consumer habits in Europe and the US, export-led 
agriculture has transformed the wintering grounds of birds into 
intensive farming operations producing grapes, melons and bananas as 
well as rice for export.

Ornithologists say another silent spring is dawning across the US as 
birds are being poisoned by toxic chemicals or killed as pests in 
their winter refuges across South and Central America as well as the 
Caribbean. They say that many species of songbird will never recover, 
and others may even become endangered or extinct if controls are not 
put in place or consumer habits changed.

More problems await those birds which make it home. Millions of acres 
of wilderness the birds use as nesting grounds have been ploughed 
under in the drive to grow corn for ethanol, for bio-fuel.

Some 150 species of songbirds undertake extraordinary migrations up 
to 12,000 miles every year as they move from the south to nesting 
grounds in the US and Canada every spring. Ornithologists say that 
almost all these species are at risk of poisoning.

The migratory songbirds in most trouble include the wood thrush, the 
Kentucky warbler, the eastern kingbird and the bobolink, celebrated 
by the 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson as "the rowdy of 
the meadows".

Bridget Stutchbury, an ornithologist and professor at York University 
in Toronto, said: "With spring we take it for granted that the sound 
of the songbirds will fill the air with their cheerful sounds. But 
each year, as we continue to demand out-of-season fruits and 
vegetables, fewer and fewer songbirds will return."

The bobolink songbird has experienced such a steep decline, it has 
almost fallen off the charts. The birds migrate in flocks from 
Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay to the east coast of the US, feeding 
on grain and rice, prompting farmers to regard them as a pest. 
Bobolink numbers have plummeted almost 50 per cent in the past four 
decades, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey.

Rosalind Renfrew, a biologist who studied bobolinks as they were 
feeding in rice paddies in Bolivia, found about half of the birds had 
been exposed to toxic chemicals banned in Europe and the US. Some 40 
to 50 species, which include the barn swallow, the wood thrush the 
dickcissel as well as migratory birds of prey, are starting to 

It is only recently that the decline has been definitively linked to 
the use of toxic pesticides in the Caribbean and across Latin 
America. "Everyone who has looked for pesticide poisoning in birds 
has found it," Professor Stutchbury said. "When we count birds during 
our summers we are finding significant population declines in about 
three dozen species of songbirds."

She wrote in the comment pages of The New York Times: "They are the 
modern-day canaries in the coal mine." She said: "The imported fruits 
and vegetables found in our shopping carts in winter and early spring 
are grown with types and amounts of pesticides that would often be 
illegal in the United States."

Growers are using high doses of pesticides, which the World Health 
Organisation calls class I toxins. These are also toxic to humans and 
are either restricted or banned in the US and EU. But controls in 
Latin American countries are easily flouted.

"I believe that if we don't make drastic changes quite literally many 
birds which are common now are going to become rare," said Professor 

Testing by individual EU countries and the US Food and Drug 
Administration reveals that fruits and vegetables imported from Latin 
America are three and sometimes four times as likely to violate basic 
standards for pesticide residues.