Chemical Pollutants Are Doing More Harm to Birds Than You Think

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More than 1,300 species of birds are currently threatened with extinction, and as biologists discover new species they’re finding that a greater proportion of them are threatened or endangered.

Besides climate change, chemical pollution is the leading cause of bird deaths around the world.

Cheryl Reynods via International Bird Rescue

Cheryl Reynods via International Bird Rescue

In January, a non-petroleum synthetic oil spill in the San Francisco Bay killed 170 seabirds. At least 323 birds survived the incident, and most of them were returned to the wild. The origin of the oil remains unknown.

Previously, in 2013, a chemical spill in the English channel resulted in the death or injury of nearly 3,000 birds, including about twenty different species. The substance, called polyisobutene, is used to improve performance for ship engines, and can legally be dumped into the ocean.

Bonnie Strawser via USFWS

Bonnie Strawser via USFWS

Birds other than waterfowl have also seen the effects of dangerous chemicals in the environment. A study published in the Journal of Great Lakes Research found that toxicity levels of Michigan bald eagles are “among the highest worldwide across studied birds” for chemicals known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs).

Research regarding the full effect PBDEs have on wildlife and the environment is ongoing.

Eagles, an apex predator in much of the United States, nearly disappeared mid-twentieth century largely because of exposure to toxic chemicals that were common in pesticides during that time. Those same chemicals, known as DDT and PCBs, may also be responsible for observed deformities in chickadees in Alaska and Great Britain.



According to the U.S. Geological Survey, toxic chemicals “are, and will continue to be, important causes of wildlife mortality,” that affect a wide range of avians, from songbirds to hawks. However, researchers have yet to understand the full impact chemical pollutants have on wildlife and the environment.

You can help birds by limiting, or eliminating, your use of lawn chemicals and pesticides at home.

What we do know is that birds, who are integral members of the ecosystem, are dying off at unconscionable rates after exposure to or accidental ingestion of chemicals that have artificially entered their environment. It’s not too late to change our ways, and stop the senseless destruction of our environment and the creatures who inhabit it.

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Matthew M. Sullivan holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from Grand Valley State University, with emphases in fiction and nonfiction. He lives smack-dab between some railroad tracks and Grand Rapids Michigan's third-busiest road, and spends his time studying film and literary fiction.
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