‘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.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Paul Manly reacts to Liberal throne speech

Manly says the Liberals need to back up their promises with action

Island Savings closes Ladysmith branch

Ladysmith branch members can be served by the Chemainus branch

Yellow Point Drama Group puts on socially distanced production of Grace & Glorie

There will be seven performances: three evening shows, and four matinees

Nanaimo-Ladysmith school trustees receive assignments for year

School trustees appointed to Nanaimo-Ladysmith-area schools

B.C. records 98 more COVID-19 cases, most in Lower Mainland

One new senior home outbreak, Surrey Memorial outbreak over

Vancouver Island Tour de Rock riders roll into Parksville Qualicum Beach

Saturday’s schedule includes Port Alberni, Ucluelet and Tofino, followed by Nanaimo on Sunday

PHOTOS: 2nd calf in a month confirmed among Southern Resident killer whale pod

Center for Whale Research said they will eagerly await to observe the calf to evaluate its health

97 distressed horses, cats and dogs seized from farm in Princeton

RCMP assisted as BC SPCA executed search warrant

$250K reward offered as investigation continues into Sea to Sky Gondola vandalism

Police also asking for specific footage of Sea to Sky highway around time of incident

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Trudeau ‘disappointed’ by RCMP treatment of Sikh officers over mask issue

World Sikh Organization of Canada said taking Sikh officers off the front lines constitutes discrimination

Liberals reach deal with NDP on COVID-19 aid bill, likely averting election

NDP and the Liberals have reached an agreement on COVID-19 sick-leave

Money laundering inquiry delayed over of B.C. election: commissioner

Austin Cullen says the hearings will start again on Oct. 26

Most Read