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Threats to birds endanger our own connection with nature

A dark-eyed junco in Seattle. Credit: Tom Talbott/Flickr

If you stop and think about it, birds are our most direct connection to nature. Their songs delight us and their journeys capture our imagination. Birds are the wildlife we interact with the most. But that bond is breaking. Each year more and more of them succumb to a host of threats: pesticides, the loss of habitat, climate change, and the biggest urban threat of all, cats. It's a bittersweet tale about their sounds and their plight.

Warblers and other migrants from the neotropic zone, which stretches from southern Florida southward through the Americas, flew a thousand miles without food or rest to find this urban rest stop. Now they joust for territory with song sparrows, chickadees and robins. Strolling through West Seattle's Longfellow Creek, wildlife biologist and international birder Suzanne Tomassi exclaims, “There's so many birds I'm hearing right now.” The creek and green belt are a bird mecca; running water, native plants and trees, and a bit of security. Tomassi hears a junco, then a warbler, a common yellow throat. “They're all here at once.”

The feeding and nesting this creek and green belt provide are critical to bird survival, she says. “Because if you're a bird and you're flying over an urban area and you get to that green patch that's going to be the opportunity to refuel for the rests of your trip.”

Refuge for birds can be found in any urban area, big or small, that offers undeveloped land with tree cover, chemical-free plants and grasses. Birds are under constant assault with the loss of habitat, pesticides, climate change and the biggest urban threat of all, according to numerous studies, cats.

It's simpler than you think to draw birds to your own habitat, says Tomassi, but if cats are near, the birds are in jeopardy. “I love cats. I have cats of my own. I would never let them outdoors because the truth is they eat wildlife and they eat it more prolifically than we've ever thought.” One project out of the University of Georgia, says Tomassi, put critter cams, tiny cameras, on cat collars that showed them killing much more than previously thought

Providing birds with feeders and water, cautions Tomassi, isn't compatible with cats. “It's heart-wrenching when the little gold finch you've been watching for a month ends up dead or your cat brings it to you.” According to the American Bird Conservancy, the largest declines in birds nationwide are among those species who spend a lot of time on the ground: the white-throated sparrow, eastern meadowlark, and northern bobwhite.

As for migratory birds, it's potentially worse. Many migrants will stop off in an unfamiliar area to search for a bit of food to get them through the next leg of their journey, and become vulnerable to cats. As forests and grasslands continue to be degraded, birds are forced into sub-prime real estate in order to survive, says the bird conservancy. The real estate often includes cats.

Relish the sounds of birds in this not-so-silent spring and you may assume all is well. But in Washington state, many are endangered or under threat: sand hill cranes and snowy plovers, greater sage grouse, American and Brown pelican, hawks and the marbled murrelet, among others. Certain species of sparrows are being monitored. Seattle Audubon's has more details. 

When Rachel Carson's groundbreaking book, "Silent Spring," was published more than 50 years ago, it generated a storm of controversy about the use of chemical pesticides. DDT was the most prominent. Carson showed the link between spraying for pests and the death of robins and salmon. Since then new generations of chemicals have been formulated for agricultural and urban use. The most pernicious, says American Bird Conservancy Pesticide Program Manager, Cynthia Palmer, are neonicatinoids. Neonics, as they are called, are the most widely used insecticide in the world and are found in nearly 600 insecticide products, including flea collars and fruit and vegetable seedlings grown in soil containing neonics. “A single kernel of corn coated with the chemical can kill a songbird,” says Palmer, "while as little as one-tenth of a coated seed per day during the egg laying season, can impair reproduction.” The American Bird Conservancy reviewed 200 industry studies obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and found levels of neonics in surface and ground water already high enough to kill aquatic invertebrates, upon which so many birds depend.

The Conservancy has called on the EPA to ban the use of neonics as seed treatments and suspend all use of the chemical pending independent review of its affects. Europe has a two-year ban on three neonic chemicals. The American Bird Conservancy is also asking pesticide companies to develop tools to diagnose poisoned birds and wildlife. “Presently there's no biomarker to identify neonic poisoning as the smoking gun in a dead animal,” says Palmer. The EPA needs to upgrade the incident reporting system for dead birds, she adds. The agency doesn't require companies to report any bird fatalities involving fewer than 200 of a so-called flocking species. "This is unrealistic", says Palmer, "you will almost never find a pile of dead birds in a field. That's not how they die. They die alone. They fly off. It's not in your face, but it's happening."

Farmers, industry and plant nursery groups have been much more cautious about bans and any sharp tightening of regulations. They point out that the pesticides were developed to replace other chemicals with direct risks to farm workers and other people. And they question the benefits of some proposals. 

Rodent-killing products have similarly been linked to the poisoning of birds and other wildlife, as well as pets and young children. California will no longer allow toxic rodenticides on store shelves starting in July 1 of this year. Attempts by the EPA to remove these products from store shelves nationwide stalled last year after the manufacturer of d-CON rodenticides, Reckitt Benckiser, sued the agency to delay implementation of the cancellation process. Palmer says it's the first time in 25 years that a company has challenged a cancellation decision under federal pesticide laws. “We have a $37 billion company and they're not going to stop until it's over.”

Reckitt Benckiser's suit says that California's action overlooked key parts of the law, including requirements for public comment and proper consideration of alternatives. The company's complaint says the ban could lead consumers to use alternatives to its d-Con products that could pose direct threats to them and the enviroment — although California officials and other would say d-Con poses its own risks. The ruling bans the sale of loose pellets, blocks or pastes of rat poison but the pest control industry would still be allowed to use rodenticides in bait boxes, without oversight.

Suzanne Tomassi is eager to show off more bird friendly habitat, this one an urban detention pond near a Delridge housing project. She worked with the Washington Department of Food and Wildlife to assess the value of urban habitat. When she's not in Seattle, Tomassi also spends a lot of time working on the island of Borneo these days where birds are under threat from habitat lost to logging and palm oil plantations, as well as climate change. But she tries to stay positive.

Conservation projects are happening everywhere she says, with many people all over the world doing their part to create pesticide free habitat and keep cats indoors. “Get involved”, she says, "because you can make a difference.” She goes back to calling for birds.  “Pish. Pish. Pish. “That rattling trill was a spotted towhee. They're a great example of an urban bird that relies on these areas.”

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