Humanity may need to add another meaning to the story of the birds and the bees. As industrial-scale farming has come to dominate agricultural regions in the U.S. and the EU, the birds and the bees are disappearing. Since 1980, the number of birds that typically inhabit European farmlands has decreased by 55 percent, and in the past 17 years alone, bird counts in agricultural regions in France have dropped by 33 percent, a “level approaching an ecological catastrophe,” according to a September 2018 report in National Geographic.
According to National Geographic, intensive industrial agriculture, increasingly dependent on the use of toxic, synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, is driving the losses of European bird and insect populations. Habitats where birds once bred, nested, and wintered now bear crops, and pesticides have killed off birds’ prey. Even avian species adapted to humans have dwindled on farms, reports National Geographic, suggesting that the land is less able to sustain all kinds of birds. To curb the losses of farmland birds, avian researchers contend that agriculture must be remade in nature’s image, i.e., less dependent on the addition of toxic, synthetic chemicals, more diverse in its flora, and more hospitable to local fauna.
In North America, researchers reported in July 2018 in the Journal of Environmental Toxicology & Chemistry that hummingbirds and bumble bees are being exposed to neonicotinoid and other pesticides through “routes that are widespread and complex.”
Scientists studying blueberry fields in British Columbia detected pesticides and related compounds in cloacal fluid and fecal pellets of hummingbirds, revealing for the first time that hummingbirds are exposed to and accumulate pesticide exposures of multiple types. In addition, bumble bees, their pollen, and blueberry flowers contained pesticides, with the highest concentration of the insecticide imidacloprid in pollen from organic farms, according to a release published in Science Daily.
"Hummingbirds and bumble bees are important pollinators of wild and agricultural plants and they survive each day on a razor's edge due to their high energy needs," said lead study author Dr. Christine Bishop, of Environment and Climate Change Canada. "Pesticide exposure in these animals may have impacts on their health and the ecosystem services they provide to humans and wildlife."
Among threatened birds living today, industrial agriculture poses the single biggest extinction threat, according to BirdLife International's 2018 State of the World's Birds Report, available as a free PDF download. To spur the birds’ rebound, Birdlife researchers say that farming practices must change radically to become more sustainable.
“It is estimated that of the roughly 672 million birds exposed annually to pesticides on U.S. agricultural lands, 10 percent, or 67 million, are killed as a result,” said Dr. Greg Harrison, DVM, a renowned avian health expert and founder of Wild Wings organic bird seed. “Ironically it is often the same sunflower and/or other grains intended to feed backyard birds that may have been sprayed with lethal pesticides to keep pests (often including birds) at bay. Just like in human health, birds and animals are affected by widespread usage of glyphosate and other toxic, synthetic pesticides,” he said.
National Geographic, which has been reporting on the impact of agricultural pesticides on bird populations, declared 2018 the Year of the Bird to mark the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, “the most powerful and important bird-protection law ever passed,” and encourages nature lovers to get involved.
Consumers are responding and realizing that, like their own health, animals also benefit from natural and organic food. Natural pet food sales reached $8.2 billion in 2016 and now make up 25 percent of the pet food market in the U.S., according to Packaged Facts. Another report, The U.S. Market for Natural Pet Products, predicts the industry will grow by 11 percent to reach $14 billion by 2021. Packaged Facts found that 72 percent of pet owners buy natural and organic pet food because they believe the nutritional quality is better.