Feed the Birds — Organically

Insecticide-laden Birdfeed Reveals Need for Chemical-free Seed

I’ll admit that in the hierarchy of pressing environmental issues, guaranteeing chemical-free birdseed doesn’t make the top of the take-action list. But recent revelations that the Scotts Company distributed millions of packets of insecticide-laden birdfeed point out the need to ensure that bird lovers aren’t accidentally feeding chemicals to the birds that visit their yards.

Photo by Flickr user likeaduckThe distribution of millions of pounds of birdseed containing chemicals that are dangerous to birds is
worrisome because backyard birdfeeders play an important role in maintaining vibrant bird populations.

In January, Scotts (most famously the maker of Miracle Gro) pled guilty in federal court to selling contaminated birdseed and agreed to pay a $4.5 million fine. According to court documents, from 2005 to 2008 Scotts distributed 73 million packets of birdseed that had been coated with two chemicals, Storcide II and Actellic 5E. The insecticides were applied while the seed was in storage as a way to keep insects from eating the product.

The EPA lists Storcide II as “Toxic to birds” and warns that “exposed treated seed may be hazardous to birds.” There’s no similar warning on Actellic 5E, but that’s mostly because the agency did not expect that birds would ever come in contact with the chemical. Actellic 5E (active ingredient: pirimiphos-methyl) is usually applied when in storage silos to protect field corn, popcorn, and grain sorghum from predation. The EPA factsheet on Actellic 5E reads: “Although pirimiphos-methyl is highly toxic to birds and fish, these risks are not of concern based on the use pattern of pirimiphos-methyl.”

The court documents say that Scotts sold the chemical-laden birdseed even though the company’s staff chemist and staff ornithologist warned about the toxicity danger. The company says it has since corrected the problem. “Following the 2008 recall, Scotts’ wild bird food products have been compliant with the relevant state and federal laws and regulations,” the company said in a statement emailed to me.

(Full disclosure: In 2007, Scotts recognized me as its “Urban Gardener of the Year” for my work at Alemany Farm and gave me a cash prize.)

The distribution of millions of pounds of birdseed containing chemicals that are dangerous to birds is worrisome because of the important role that backyard birdfeeders play in maintaining vibrant bird populations. According to the American Bird Conservancy, 200 species of North American birds are in decline. This is due largely to habitat loss as forests, fields, and wetlands succumb to urban sprawl and agriculture. Backyard feeders are vital to making sure that many species have enough forage. The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that one in five Americans engages in bird watching. Each year birders spend billions of dollars on feed, feeding equipment, and bird-watching related travel.

“The use of feeders serves two purposes,” says Robert Johns, a spokesman at the American Bird Conservancy. “It’s a handy means for people to observe birds and it’s a supplement to the food birds need. The more we have bird feeders, the healthier the birds are, and the more they will breed.”

Backyard feeders should also, in theory, provide an oasis from pesticide-soaked agricultural fields. The EPA estimates that at least 67 million birds die annually from exposure to pesticides.

Of course, people’s good intentions will backfire if they are providing birds with feed containing chemicals that are dangerous to the birds’ health. Deb Martin, author of The Secrets of Backyard Bird-Feeding Success, recommends Wild Birds Unlimited as a good source of natural feed. A quick Google search also turned up the folks at Harrison’s Bird Foods, who sell a product that is certified to meet the USDA organic standards. Another option, according to birder Martin, is to make your own seed by sowing a crop of sunflowers in your hard and leaving them for the birds to forage.

It would seem to be worth the extra money and added effort of paying for certified organic birdseed and/or growing it yourself. If you wouldn’t eat industrial food yourself, you shouldn’t feed it to your feathered friends either.

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