Second Silent Spring? Bird Declines Linked to Popular Pesticides
Neonicotinoids are aimed at insects, but they're affecting other animals too, study says.
Pesticides don't just kill pests. New research out of the Netherlands provides compelling evidence linking a widely used class of insecticides to population declines across 14 species of birds.
Those insecticides, called neonicotinoids, have been in the news lately due to the way they hurt bees and other pollinators. (Related: "The Plight of the Honeybee.")
This new paper, published online Wednesday in Nature, gets at another angle of the story—the way these chemicals can indirectly affect other creatures in the ecosystem.
Scientists from Radboud University in Nijmegen and the Dutch Centre for Field Ornithology and Birdlife Netherlands (SOVON) compared long-term data sets for both farmland bird populations and chemical concentrations in surface water. They found that in areas where water contained high concentrations of imidacloprid—a common neonicotinoid pesticide—bird populations tended to decline by an average of 3.5 percent annually.
"I think we are the first to show that this insecticide may have wide-scale, significant effects on our environment," said Hans de Kroon, an expert on population dynamics at Radboud University and one of the authors of the paper.
Second Silent Spring?
Pesticides and birds: If this story sounds familiar, it's probably because Rachel Carson wrote about it back in 1962. Carson's seminal Silent Spring was the first popular attempt to warn the world that pesticides were contributing to the "sudden silencing of the song of birds."
"I think there is a parallel, of course," said Ruud Foppen, an ornithologist at SOVON and co-author of the Nature paper.
Foppen says that while Carson battled against a totally different kind of chemicals—organophosphates like DDT—the effects he's seeing in the field are very much the same. Plainly stated, neonicotinoids are harming biodiversity.
"In this way, we can compare it to what happened decades ago," he said. "And if you look at it from that side, we didn't learn our lessons."
How Neonicotinoids Work
In the past 20 years, neonicotinoids (pronounced nee-oh-NIK-uh-tin-oyds) have become the fastest growing class of pesticides. They're extremely popular among farmers because they're effective at killing pests and easy to apply.
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