For the Birds Radio Program: Deformed Birds around Duluth

Original Air Date: Aug. 2, 1989

How much are birds paying for our use of pesticides?

Audio missing


(Recording of a American Robin)

This summer I’m suffering from avian overload. I’m taking care of a nighthawk who broke his wing against a power line while doing his nuptial display, a baby nighthawk found in a supermarket parking lot in Superior, a baby Blue Jay victim of a lawn sprays, and Mortimer, the European Starling that we’re trying to teach to talk.

Two weeks ago a boy named Joshua Quigley brought me a baby robin with a sprained wing. It healed quickly, and the first time I brought him into my backyard one of the neighborhood robins adopted him, so he’s in a lot better hands, or wings, than he’d have been with me. I’ve also cared for and released another baby nighthawk, and lost a baby robin whose lower beak had been punctured and whose chest had been caved in, probably hit by a car. And I’ve had to turn down several people with hurt or orphaned birds simply because I don’t have any more room. Usually I only end up with two or three birds in a whole summer.

Several people have called me about other hurt or dead birds that they’ve found—Cindy Edwardson, a docent at the Lake Superior Zoo, had at least two baby robins and three baby crows die in her yard, from unknown causes. One woman called me about a baby Cliff Swallow with only one wing–the other was just a little stump. And the baby jay I’m caring for has all the neurological and developmental defects associated with chemical poisoning from lawn sprays.

I’ve been hearing so many reports this year about unusual defects in baby birds that I’m starting to wonder whether there might not be more damage from lawn sprays than I’d imagined. People throughout the Northland have their lawns treated with weed killers and insecticides—it’s a big enough business to support 10 companies in Duluth alone—and there are obviously going to be some bird deaths associated with the pesticides. Whether these lawn treatments are safe for humans and groundwater is another question.

St. Louis County sprays herbicides along hundred of miles of county roads every few years to economize on their brushing operations, since doing the brushing by machine alone is judged too expensive. They don’t calculate into their overall costs the losses in wildlife, the degradation of groundwater supplies, and the effects on human health, but then again, those costs would be awfully hard to compute accurately.

The steady decline in most bird species over the past several decades has been something most people are willing to live with. Each environmental issue, from building a single shopping mall on a wetland to trampling Atlantic seagrass in its only Minnesota habitat to getting rid of dandelions in a single yard, seems like a tiny problem in and of itself, and the few environmentalists willing to speak out on each little issue seem to most people to be alarmists and extremists. If our gross national product followed the same trend as our wildlife numbers, we’d be in a far deeper recession than the Great Depression itself, and something would certainly be done about it. But we’re talking about songbirds, not dollars, and so most people accept the decline as necessary and tolerable. I often wonder how people can be complacent about living on a planet, or in a backyard, too poisoned to support birds. A few deformed baby birds may not mean much in the overall scheme of the universe, but like miners with their canaries, if we ignore the dead birds in our midst, we may end up paying with our own lives.

(Recording of a American Robin)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”