Birds and Pesticides

by Debbie Schlenoff

It is estimated that a mind-boggling 1.2 billion pounds of pesticides are applied in the United States every year. Several recent reports have highlighted the threat of these toxic chemicals to public health, especially to the developing bodies of children, as well as the elderly, immune-compromised, and chemically sensitive. Pesticides are found in all types of habitat: grasslands, forestlands, farmland, lawns and backyards, in the soil, and in our waterways. Several types of pesticides, including herbicides, insecticides, and rodenticides, have adverse effects on fish and wildlife. It is difficult to get an idea of the extent of the threat. According to Bird Life International, approximately 50 pesticides that are currently in use in the U.S. are known to have caused die-offs of birds, in such diverse groups as songbirds, game birds, raptors, seabirds, and shorebirds. A 1997 report estimated 672 million bird deaths per year from direct exposure, but many people fear this may be the tip of the iceberg. There are more pesticides in use today, very little actual monitoring of bird deaths, and no mandated central reporting requirement. A bird killed by pesticides will likely disappear anyway since more than 92% of bird carcasses are scavenged. Perhaps the most confounding issue is that most pesticide effects are sublethal; they don't cause immediate death but otherwise compromise the animal in a way that leads to illness, lower reproductive success, and eventual early mortality.

Among the ill effects of pesticides are nervous system degradation, muscle paralysis and respiratory failure, and endocrine disruption, which results in reproductive and immune system problems, as well as the development of cancer. Behavioral effects, in animals ranging from minnows to falcons, include alterations in mating and parenting, nest building, activity level (lethargy), predator avoidance, and foraging. Pesticide exposure has been associated with deformed embryos, slower nestling growth rates, lack of appetite and weight loss, interference with body temperature regulation, and inability to orient in the proper direction for migration.

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is a scientifically based program that seeks proactive, effective, and least harmful methods of controlling pests. The United States EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) recommends IPM. It involves monitoring and managing areas to prevent pests and, when necessary, controlling them using least toxic methods first. IPM programs have been found to be effective and cost-efficient and are used in several states throughout the country. The "Safe Public Places Bill" being introduced in the Oregon legislature this year will mandate IPM on state lands. The bill will significantly reduce the use of harmful pesticides on public lands throughout Oregon, including parks, around public buildings, and on public roads. Birds often use public lands as refuges, as places to forage, for shelter, to find water, and, perhaps, to just rest during migration. Birds and other wildlife (not to mention people) would benefit greatly from the passage of this bill. The bill is supported by a number of conservation and public health organizations.

Unfortunately, large pesticide manufacturing companies will be fighting the bill. Your support is needed. "Beyond Toxics" is campaigning for the bill and has a website with information and a way to express your support at  For more information, please contact Lisa Arkin at Beyond Toxics, 541.465.8860 or info (at)


HB 3364 has a hearing scheduled on March 28th, at 8AM in the House Agricultural and Environmental Resources Committee. Representative Brad Witt is Chair. Representatives Esquivel (R), McKeown (D), Clem (D), Krieger (R), Reardon (D), Thompson (R), Unger (D), Whitsett (R) are members of the committee.

New study finds that the use of pesticides is the leading factor in grassland bird species declines:

Read an in-depth report on the The Impact of the Nation’s Most Widely Used Insecticides on Birds,


Thanks to our senators for introducing these wilderness bills. Let's hope they pass this time.