Put a Songbird on Your Shopping List

The decisions we make about which imported fruits and vegetables we buy this time of year can affect the status of many of the species that visit our yards in spring and summer

12-01-2008 // Bridget Stutchbury

A SHOPPING LIST can say a lot about a person. Some lists feature healthful foods such as nonfat yogurt and organic rice. Others include items—donuts and potato chips, for example—that might be considered contraband in many households. My list always includes barn swallows, wood thrushes, bobolinks and Baltimore orioles.

No, my family doesn’t shop for songbirds. I keep them at the top of my list as a constant reminder that these animals are slowly disappearing from our world, and that the purchases I make can have an impact on the birds’ future status. The populations of about a third of the 100 or so species of Neotropical migratory songbirds that breed in North America have plummeted by more than 30 percent over the past 40 years, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Breeding Bird Survey. And sadly, the imported fruits and vegetables many of us buy at this time of year are partly to blame for the declines.

In countries such as Guatemala, Honduras and Ecuador, crops are sprayed heavily with a cocktail of dangerous chemical substances. Monocrotophos, methamidophos and carbofuran are not household names but they have been widely used in Latin America. These chemicals, rated as Class I toxins by the World Health Organization, are considered “restricted-use” pesticides or are banned altogether in the United States.

They are not banned in Latin America, however, where pesticide use has increased fivefold since the 1980s, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s pesticide import statistics. A major impetus behind this increase is the growing demand by people in the United States for fresh produce year-round. Unfortunately, it comes at the expense of migratory songbirds, which are highly susceptible to the toxic effects of the chemicals used on their wintering grounds in Central America and South America. A single application of a highly toxic pesticide such as carbofuran can kill as many as 25 songbirds per acre. It also poses a threat to humans, which is why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced last summer that it would no longer allow residue of the chemical on imported food.

Many birds also appear to suffer from severely depressed neurological function after being exposed to spraying. In a study of bobolinks that feed in heavily sprayed fields in Bolivia, biologist Rosalind Renfrew of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies discovered half of the birds had levels of cholinesterase—an enzyme affecting brain and nerve cells—that were 40 to 50 percent below normal. That, she reported, is a clear sign of recent and serious damage to the birds’ nervous systems. Bobolink numbers have declined by almost 50 percent in recent decades.

These days, my shopping list does not include strawberries, grapes, red peppers or tomatoes imported from Latin America. I admit that finding fresh produce grown in the United States can be a challenge during the winter months. However, if helping protect wildlife and reducing the levels of carbon emissions generated during transport of food items are not compelling reasons enough to stay the course, consider the pesticide residues that come with imported foods. U.S. Food and Drug Administration tests show produce imported from Latin America are three times more likely to violate EPA safety standards for pesticide residues as the same products grown in the United States.

Some foods come from tropical plants and by definition must be imported. Bananas, for instance, are cultivated with one of the highest pesticide loads of any tropical crop. In Costa Rica, banana plantations typically apply 40 pounds of active ingredients of pesticides per acre, compared with fewer than 5 pounds per acre for most fruit and vegetable crops grown in the United States. Though eating bananas presents little risk to consumers (because the fruit is covered by the peel), buying organic bananas promotes a healthier environment in the regions where they are grown.

Coffee is, by far, the most sought-after tropical crop in the world. I could live without bananas, but don’t ask me to give up my morning cup of java. These days, most mass-produced coffee is grown in open fields with heavy inputs of chemicals. By contrast, at traditional small coffee farms, the crops are grown without pesticides in the shade under tree canopies that provide essential nitrogen to the plants and protect the soil from erosion. These organic coffee farms provide safe habitat for songbirds.

Though many of us will never see fields of melons in Guatemala or the bright red berries on coffee plants in Mexico, the thrushes, warblers and swallows that we welcome in our backyards during part of the year experience both worlds. Their lives are impacted by environmental changes on the same huge geographic scale that can affect our own lives, and they reveal environmental threats that most of us cannot see unfolding in faraway countries. That’s why songbirds remain at the top of my shopping list, and might belong on your list too.

Bridget Stutchbury is a biology professor at York University in Toronto, Canada. Her most recent book is Silence of the Songbirds (Walker & Company, 2007).


Songbird-Friendly Shopping Tips

  • To discourage use of dangerous pesticides, avoid fruits and vegetables imported from Latin America unless they are labeled “organic.”
  • Buy shade-grown coffee that is organic and fair-traded to help increase tropical forest acreage for wildlife and encourage sustainable farming practices. For more, see www.nwf.org/birdsandglobalwarming.
  • Promote sustainable logging practices that safeguard habitat by buying wood and paper products made from timber harvested in forests certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. See www.nwf.org/forests.
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