Playing the Long Game to Reduce Pesticide Threats

The Bobolink is one of many species vulnerable to pesticides. Photo by Larry Master,

After years of advocacy, education, research, and a lot of help from our members and friends, we are seeing new progress made in protecting birds and other wildlife from harmful pesticides. New York, California, and Washington, D.C. have all taken major steps to curtail the use of neonicotinoids. Also called “neonics,” these highly toxic chemicals are so potent that a single seed with a neonic coating is enough to kill a songbird, like the Indigo Bunting. Through engaging in legislation, regulation, and formal petitioning, American Bird Conservancy (ABC) and our partners are working toward the same goal: making bird habitats safer by reducing the  threat of harmful chemical pesticides.

Neonicotinoids are some of the most commonly used chemicals for growing plants that feature in our daily lives. Neonics may be coated on corn, soy, and wheat seeds as an early deterrent to crop pests. They are applied to lawns, golf courses, and ornamental plants. Despite mountains of evidence and many countries, including those in the European Union, already banning or reducing their use, we continue to use them regularly in the United States. The worst part? They're usually not even needed — their greatest use, which is as a seed coating, often provides no benefits to growers while endangering the flora and fauna nearby. Grassland birds like the Bobolink and the Endangered Attwater's Prairie-Chicken are especially threatened.

Neonics were designed to be highly toxic in low volumes, be carried easily by water, and last for a long time. This makes them dangerous for much more than just their target pests; beneficial insects, birds, and mammals are negatively impacted by neonics. Their near-ubiquity makes them formidable opponents for ABC and our partners, but it also means that there are multiple avenues available to tackle this problem.

New York's Birds and Bees Protection Act Sets a New Standard

ABC and our partners gathered in Albany to show support for New York's Birds and Bees Protection Act, which was signed into law in December 2023. Hardy Kern, the author, is pictured in the top row on the right. Photo by Corrine Hansch and NOFA-NY.

New York became the first state in the U.S. to ban the use of neonics as seed coatings when the Birds and Bees Protection Act was signed into law in December of 2023. The Act requires neonic use on corn, soy, and wheat seeds to be phased out by 2029 and that their use on turf and outdoor ornamental plants will also be banned starting in 2027. To date, no other state has been able to pass this type of legislation, making New York a standard bearer and creating a model that other legislatures could follow when trying to pass similar laws.

ABC provided expert testimony, wrote op-eds in local publications, and helped to rally our members, supporters, and other bird-centric groups across the state of New York. ABC supporters sent more than 2,000 letters to their legislators encouraging support for the bill. Our actions helped to paint a fuller picture of the impacts of neonics on wildlife and ecosystems. 

Neonics can also affect humans and appear to be linked to impaired neurological development, complications during pregnancy, and potentially other health concerns. The bill's passage is a great example of how the legislative process can help solve complex problems. Rigorous hearings, a thorough vetting process, and some late changes by the Governor's office all made for a strong law with wide support. 

Regulations for Registering Systemic Insecticides

ABC and our partners at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), as well as more than 60 like-minded organizations, submitted a petition to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) asking that when systemic insecticides (neonics and similar chemicals) are registered, the company applying to register them (“registrant”) must supply data proving their efficacy.

You read that correctly: Currently, there is technically no requirement to submit data showing that a neonic works as intended when it is being registered. The EPA can ask for this data, but it is at the agency's discretion. The comment period gives agencies, citizens, stakeholders, and any interested parties the ability to weigh in on the decision before the EPA acts on it. They may make a rule, they may adopt the petition with some changes, or they may take no action. 

It is like a long game of chess (with plenty of science and citations). If our petition is adopted by the agency it could change how all systemic insecticides are registered, relieving states of the burden of solving the problem of neonics by passing their own laws.

Whether conducting complicated science, asking difficult questions, or voicing unpopular opinions, ABC keeps the need to protect birds at the forefront of all of our decisions. Such was the case when, in 2017, ABC sent a formal legal petition to the California Fish and Game Commission requesting that they no longer use neonics on state-owned lands.

Just seven years later (the blink of an eye in the policy realm), the Commission successfully adopted a new rule banning any state entity from using neonics on state-owned lands. Though the Commission maintains that the California Division of Fish and Wildlife does not currently use neonics, the new rule protects their lands and the birds that need them from these chemicals in perpetuity.

Sowing Seeds for a Better Future for Birds

ABC, and our policy team in particular, will continue to push for better protections from a wide variety of threats to birds and their habitats across the country. 

You can take action, too! Here are some ways to help:

  • Join ABC in advocating for a strong Farm Bill that includes funding to restore grasslands and help recovering bird populations.
  • Share your support for closing loopholes that permit the continued use of harmful pesticides. 
  • Learn more about the impacts neonicotinoids and other pesticides can have on birds in our webinar
  • And, find out how you can go pesticide-free and turn your backyard into a safe haven for birds. 

Whether we are advocating in individual states or with the federal government, writing technical comments, submitting long legal briefs, educating lawmakers, or writing op-eds, ABC will take action for birds.