‘On life support:’ Research shows common pesticides starve, disorient birds

Research says two of Canada’s most commonly used pesticides cause migrating songbirds to lose weight

A white crested sparrow is seen in this undated handout photo. Research suggests that two of Canada’s most commonly used pesticides cause migrating songbirds to lose both weight and their sense of direction. (HO/The Canadian Press, University of Saskatchewan)

Newly published research says two of Canada’s most commonly used pesticides cause migrating songbirds to lose weight and their sense of direction.

“This is very good evidence that even a little dose — incidental, you might call it — in their feeding could be enough to have serious impacts,” said University of Saskatchewan biologist Christy Morrissey, whose paper was published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports.

Morrissey studied the effect of two widely used pesticide types — neonicotinoids and organophosphates. Both are used on more than 100 different crops, including wheat and canola, and are found in dozens of commercial products.

The so-called neonics are often applied to seeds before they’re planted in the ground. Organophosphates are applied in tiny granules.

Both are known to be lethal to birds in large doses, but Morrissey wanted to study the impact of smaller amounts.

She and her colleagues took three groups of white-crowned sparrows, a common migratory songbird found throughout North America, and exposed them to a small dose, a somewhat larger dose, or no dose at all.

All doses were kept deliberately small. The low neonic dose was the equivalent of four treated canola seeds per day for three days — about one per cent of the bird’s diet.

The results were dramatic.

After three days, the low-dose birds lost 17 per cent of their weight. The high-dose birds lost 25 per cent.

“That’s a lot,” said Morrissey. “At that point, those birds were on life support.”

The birds exposed to organophosphates kept their weight, but they lost something else — their ability to find north. Both the high-dose and low-dose group lost all orientation and didn’t get it back after the tests ended.

The neonics also disoriented the sparrows, but the effect faded when the exposure stopped.

A 2016 survey suggested that migratory songbird populations have fallen by 1.5 billion since 1970. Morrissey suggests that pesticides might be one reason why.

“In the real world, any bird that experiences these effects is pretty much a dead bird,” she said.

Morrissey points out that pesticides are often applied just as birds are increasing their food intake to get ready to migrate.

Pierre Petelle, head of the agricultural chemical industry association CropLife Canada, said the paper is being considered.

“We’ll be looking closely at the study, including how realistic the exposure scenarios were, among other elements,” he said.

“Like any new study on pesticides, this one will be thoroughly reviewed by both industry and regulators and it will need to be looked at in the context of other extensive studies.”

Neonics have already been blamed for steep drops in bee populations.

Health Canada is considering a ban on the neonic used in Morrissey’s study. The European Union strictly regulates its use.

Morrissey said her study has been made available to Health Canada.

There may be ways to keep the popular pesticide on the market and reduce its environmental impact, she suggested. Instead of being applied universally to seeds, it may be wiser to use neonics only when they’re needed.

“That’s where we have to consider how we’re doing agriculture, whether we should be applying very toxic pesticides when they may or may not need to be used.”

The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Great news for Indigenous youth program in BC

The federal government came through with over $1 million in funding for Indigenous youth program

Emails show B.C. Housing disappointment with Penticton council decision

Stakeholders, B.C. Housing discouraged by council not supporting project proposed on Green Avenue

Luxury Airbnb in Kaleden has notice issued on title by RDOS

The property owner is accused of performing renovations, renting the chalet without proper permits

Low risk associated with case of pneumococcal disease in Oliver

No identified risk to the public from recent case of pneumococcal disease with associated meningitis

TGIF: Penticton and South Okanagan events listings

Live theatre, concerts, events, art exhibits and more from around the South Okanagan

Video: What are issues do you want candidates to address?

Penticton residents share the issues that matter most to them

Who’s running in Penticton’s election?

Candidates for the Penticton municipal and school board election

B.C. premier apologizes for removal of 1950s totem pole at Canada-U.S. border

First Nations say pole was raised at Peace Arch but removed to make way for tourism centre

Tornado touches down in Ottawa and Gatineau, Que.

Environment Canada says cars and homes have been damaged by severe thunderstorms and high wind gusts

An unexpected sight: Bear spotted eating another bear in central B.C.

Cheslatta Carrier Nation Chief finds bear eating another bear’s carcass

RCMP confirm death of missing BC teen Jessica Patrick

No details on cause were given. Case is under criminal investigation and police are asking for tips.

CUTENESS OVERLOAD: 2 sea otters hold hands at the Vancouver Aquarium

Holding hands is a common – and adorable – way for otters to stay safe in the water

B.C. teen with autism a talented guitarist

Farley Mifsud is gaining fans with every performance

Yukon man facing new attempted murder charge in B.C. exploding mail case

Leon Nepper, 73, is now facing one charge each of aggravated assault and attempted murder

Most Read