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Pesticides Have Led to a ‘Catastrophic’ Decline in France’s Bird Populations

The chemicals have decimated the insects that birds rely on for food

Sixty-eight percent of meadow pipits have disappeared from the French countryside. (Zambog/Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

In 1962, the environmentalist Rachel Carson published her seminal book Silent Spring, which exposed the devastating effects of DDT, a powerful pesticide, on humans and wildlife alike. “We spray our elm trees,” Carson wrote, “and the following springs are silent of robin song.”

Many countries have since banned DDT, but scientists in France are now warning that the country is once again facing a “silent spring.” As the Agence France-Presse reports, two studies found that bird populations in the French countryside have plummeted over the past 17 years—an alarming trend that can likely be attributed to the pervasive use of pesticides.

The two studies, led by the National Centre for Scientific Research and France's National Museum of Natural History in Paris, tracked bird numbers throughout the country. The first study drew on numbers from a Natural History Museum program, which has for decades been enlisting volunteer ornithologists throughout France to carry out censuses of the birds they see and hear in the early morning. The second study was based on research in the Deux-Sèvres region, where all bird species have been intensively monitored since 1995, according to a press release by the National Centre for Scientific Research.

The latest data from these research programs revealed that in less than two decades, one third of birds have disappeared from the French countryside. Among specific species, the declines are even more severe. Meadow pipits, for example, have declined by 68 percent. Skylark populations have slumped 50 percent. With their numbers down by 90 percent, France’s grey partridge populations have essentially collapsed.

“The situation is catastrophic,” Benoît Fontaine, conservation biologist at the National Museum of Natural History, opines in the statement. “Our farmland is turning into a real desert.”

Researchers say that widespread pesticide use is the main culprit of the birds’ decline. Pesticides do not harm the birds directly, but decimate the insects that animals rely on for food. “There are practically no insects left, and this is the crux of the matter,” says Vincent Bretagnolle, ecologist at the Centre for Biological Studies at Chizé, according to the statement.

Previous research has revealed similarly disconcerting trends across Europe. Two studies recently showed that Europe has lost 80 percent of its flying insect biomass—and 421 million birds.

Though the French government has made efforts to halve the country’s pesticide use by 2020, pesticide sales have climbed, reports Patrick Barkham of the Guardian. According to the National Centre for Scientific Research, Bretagnolle is now working with farmers to explore ways that they can reduce their use of chemicals while maintaining crop yields. Increasing the number of grasslands and hedges in the affected areas may also help encourage biodiversity.

As the new studies suggest, the need to foster better farming practices is urgent—not only for birds and other animals, but also for humans.

“We are losing everything and we need that nature, that biodiversity—the agriculture needs pollinators and the soil fauna,” Fontaine, the National Museum of Natural History biologist, tells Barkham. “Without that, ultimately, we will die.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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