When the little bluebird
Who has never said a word
Starts to sing Spring
It is nature, that is all,
Simply telling us to fall in love.
— Cole Porter, “Let’s Do It”
The immortal refrain of an old Cole Porter chestnut — “birds do it; bees do it” — has taken on an ominous ring. Evidently, songbirds have followed honeybees by engaging in a massive die-off. (Bats, whose mating rituals evidently didn’t capture Porter’s fancy, are dying off as well.)
According to a New York Times op-ed by biologist Bridget Stutchbury:
Bobolinks, called skunk blackbirds in some places, were once a common sight in the Eastern United States. In mating season, the male in his handsome tuxedo-like suit sings deliriously as he whirrs madly over the hayfields. Bobolink numbers have plummeted almost 50 percent in the last four decades, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey.
Stutchbury links the problem directly to pesticide use in South and Central America, where farm operations widely use chemicals now banned in the U.S. And the explosion of pesticide use in those areas can be directly linked to the U.S. and European appetite for out-of-season produce. Stutchbury:
Since the 1980s, pesticide use has increased fivefold in Latin America as countries have expanded their production of nontraditional crops to fuel the demand for fresh produce during winter in North America and Europe.
The phenomenon is not only killing songbirds, but it’s also poisoning us :
Testing by the United States Food and Drug Administration shows that fruits and vegetables imported from Latin America are three times as likely to violate Environmental Protection Agency standards for pesticide residues as the same foods grown in the United States. Some but not all pesticide residues can be removed by washing or peeling produce, but tests by the Centers for Disease Control show that most Americans carry traces of pesticides in their blood.
Stutchbury ends by appealing to consumers to mend their ways to save the birds. She calls for shade-grown coffee, organic bananas, and avoiding out-of-season fruits and veggies.
I have no objection to her use of birds as charismatic minifauna in the battle to end the practice of dousing crops with poison. I want to live in a world in which the beautiful birds sing. But I also invite Stutchbury and everyone else to investigate what the pesticides that are wiping out songbirds are doing to the farm workers down south.