Fearing that the Florida grasshopper sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum floridanus) might go extinct in as little as two years, wildlife advocates have begun pressing federal officials to approve an emergency effort to capture some of the birds and breed them in captivity.The Central Florida bird is a subspecies of the grasshopper sparrow found only in vast, treeless prairies south of the Orlando area, including the Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area in Osceola County, where the largest group of the sparrows clings to survival. "We consider this the most endangered bird in the continental United States," warns a letter sent last week to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by Audubon of Florida; Archbold Biological Station; and a University of Central Florida ecologist, Reed Noss. "In light of population levels possibly below 200 individuals and very rapid recent declines of [the sparrow], … we conclude that the risk of delay exceeds the risk of mistakes," the letter states. The bird is small, elusive and hard to study. One of the things it is well known for is being closely related to the dusky seaside sparrow (Ammodramus maritimus nigrescens) of east Central Florida. That bird suffered a sharp decline in numbers because of mosquito-control projects decades ago that wrecked the ecological health of the marshes where it lived.
New figures show that the number of house sparrows (Passer domesticus) in the region has fallen by 50 per cent while starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) have declined by 30 per cent and the song thrush (Turdus philomelos) by 55 per cent, in the past two decades. The figures from The Wildlife Trust of Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside come on the back of a report called ‘State of the UK's Birds 2012’ carried out by the RSPB which showed that nationally the bird population in the UK had declined by 44 million since 1966.
The disease was first found in south-east England in 2006, but has spread rapidly around the country. It causes large growths on birds' beaks and eyes. A new study shows the strain originated in Scandinavia or Central Europe and was probably carried across the Channel by biting insects, such as mosquitoes. The findings have been published in three papers in the journal Plos One. "The lesions can be very severe," said Dr Becki Lawson, a veterinarian from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). "There is a very significant adverse impact on the individual bird's survival." The virus is a form of avian pox, which is a skin disease. Avian pox usually infects birds such as house sparrows, dunnocks and starlings. But genetic analysis revealed that the strain hitting great tits in the UK is a different form of the virus, which originated in Europe. Although the disease can pass from bird to bird, scientists do not think that great tits carried it into the country because the birds do not migrate across the English Channel. Dr Lawson said: "It is more likely to be an insect vector, such as a mosquito, either moved by man or by wind-borne spread."
These shocking statistics are contained in the State of UK’s Birds 2012. Published by a coalition of conservation organisations, it charts the ups and downs of the nation’s bird populations over recent decades. This year’s report has raised fresh concerns for the fate of two wintering seaducks, whose range in winter is strongly associated with Scotland, the velvet scoter (Melanitta fusca) and the long tailed duck (Clangula hyemalis). Both have suffered massive declines in the Baltic Sea, which have been mirrored in Scotland, where the bulk of the UK population are found. Numbers have fallen so sharply (65% and 60% respectively since the first Baltic Sea survey in 1992) that both species are now considered threatened with extinction globally. Another suite of species to have suffered particularly significant declines are seabirds, of which Scotland holds 45% of Europe’s breeding population.
The Environment Secretary Owen Paterson is examining the possibility of banning the controversial nerve-agent pesticides increasingly implicated in the decline of bees and other pollinating insects. Mr Paterson has asked officials of his Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to examine the practical consequences of restricting the use of neonicotinoids, which are now widely deployed across British agriculture, The Independent has learnt. He wants to know about the likely effects on farming of a ban, and what alternatives might be available. This is the first sign that the Government may shift its stance on neonicotinoids, which, it was disclosed yesterday, have been implicated in problems with bee health in more than 30 scientific research papers in the last three years alone. Mr Paterson’s action will send shockwaves through the immensely profitable agro-chemical industry.
It was disheartening to read Caroline Davies's article about the decline in British birds (Report, 19 November) without any comment on the possible cause. The Dutch toxicologist Dr Henk Tennekes, author of The Systemic Insecticides: A Disaster in the Making, blames the use of neonicotinoid insecticides. These insecticides are put inside seeds and, being water soluble, permeate the whole plant, binding irreversibly to critical receptors in the central nervous systems of insects. Bees and butterflies collecting pollen or nectar from treated crops are poisoned, and neonicotinoids have been implicated in the mass die-off of bee populations. Germany has banned seed treatment with neonicotinoids after bee colonies suffered a severe decline linked to the use of the insecticide clothianidin. Neonicotinoids also leach from the soil into waterways and groundwater, affecting marine and bird life; they can remain in the soil for 20 years. Imidacloprid has caused major contamination of Dutch surface water since 2004. The Chinese are already having to pollinate crops by hand due to the demise of pollinating insects, of which 80% were bees. It maybe too late to reverse the decline in British birds but shouldn't we try by banning the use of these insecticides? More can be found by visiting smallbluemarble.org.uk.
East Molesey, Surrey
REGARDING crop pesticides which kill bees, a recent report by Dutch toxicologist Henk Tennekes found a strong likelihood that neonicotinoid exposure could damage the human brain, which may be shown by the recent sharp rise in autism, as well as increase the risk of neurological disease such as Parkinsons and dementia. When are our politicians and decision-makers going to see that we are putting the whole eco-system and human health at risk? The action of these chemicals are thousands of times more toxic than DDT, and the effects are cumulative as they lock into the brain. Research shows the developing baby in the mothers womb is far more at risk from chemicals than the adult brain, which is why we have got to ban these chemicals now. To continue to allow their use is a crime being perpetrated against children.
Some 44 million breeding birds have been lost from Britain since 1966, and many species are facing a bleak future. While two turtle doves may represent a true love’s gift in the 12 Days of Christmas carol, birdwatchers could soon struggle to see even one on our shores as the population has plunged by more than 90 per cent. The house sparrow has also seen a significant decline, down by two-thirds in less than 50 years to leave an estimated population of ten million. And its smaller cousin, the tree sparrow, has been even more seriously affected, with a staggering 91 per cent drop in its numbers to leave just 60,000 in the UK. Similar falls have hit the willow tit and the grey partridge. The annual State of the UK’s Birds report estimates there are 166 million nesting birds in Britain, down from 210 million in 1966.
The Environmental Audit Committee held its first and second public evidence hearings of its inquiry, Insects and Insecticides. In the morning evidence session, the Committee identified the key issues in relation to insects and insecticides with campaigners and farmers’ representatives. Topics for discussion included the current regulatory regime for pesticides, the decline of insect pollinators in the UK, organic alternatives to pesticides and the practical consequences of a hypothetical ban on the use of neonicotinoid insecticides. In the afternoon session, the Committee explored the latest scientific research on insects and insecticides with a panel of scientists who are currently active in the field. This session focused on the latest research on the effect of neonicotinoid insecticides on bees.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, the book responsible for the onset of the environmental movement, which led to the banning of the pesticide DDT a decade later. What many people don't realise is that in 2012 we are exposed to more toxic chemicals than ever before, in spite of legislation enacted to control it. In the US, chemicals like PCBs, solvents and adhesives are regulated under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976. But rather than "control" which chemicals are released into the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat, TSCA really just follows them after the fact. When TSCA was enacted, more than 60,000 untested chemicals were present in our environment, and an estimated 8,000-12,000 chemicals continue to be introduced annually, with no requirement that human toxicity or exposure data be provided before the chemical is used. Essentially, we the consumers and citizens are the experimental animals on which these chemicals are tested.