EPA Signals Continued Use of Insecticides Dangerous to Birds

A Common Yellowthroat with an insect and sunflower. Photo by Ivan Kuzm

(Washington, D.C., March 15, 2022) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is making major decisions on the regulation of malathion and neonicotinoids — insecticides that pose major threats to birds, such as the Common Yellowthroat, as well as bees and other pollinator species. A Biological Opinion regarding malathion published recently is bad news for birds, and could foreshadow an unfavorable decision on neonicotinoids in fall 2022. Once made, these decisions will shape how the pesticides are used for the next 15 years.

“American Bird Conservancy is grateful for the work put in by the EPA on evaluating malathion, but is disappointed in the ultimate result. The decision to renew malathion's registration spells trouble for birds and sets a concerning precedent for other pesticides under review,” said Hardy Kern, Government Relations Director of American Bird Conservancy's (ABC) Pesticide and Birds Campaign.

Malathion is an insecticide commonly used in mosquito control. A 2017 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service study concluded that malathion poses a threat to 97 percent of species listed under the Endangered Species Act, including the Kirtland's Warbler and Black-capped Vireo.

However, with last week's Biological Opinion, the EPA now asserts that with minor labeling changes, voluntary reductions in use, and a “conservation program for endangered and threatened species in collaboration with stakeholders,” the harmful effects of malathion will be negated. 

Neonicotinoid insecticides are the most widely-used pesticides in American agriculture. Since their registration, mounting evidence has shown their overall harm to pollinators and birds. A 2013 report by ABC showed that a single seed treated with neonicotinoids is enough to kill an individual songbird, such as the Indigo Bunting. Another study showed the effects of neonics on bird migration. Neonicotinoids are not only toxic when ingested by birds; they also leach into soil and waterways, killing nontarget insects like mayflies that serve as important food sources for birds. 

“Neonicotinoids were originally thought to be less harmful to birds than other pesticides on the market, but years of evidence show the direct and indirect harm they do to avian species,” Kern stated. 

This fall, the EPA is expected to release its final Biological Opinions on the three most widely used neonicotinoids: imidacloprid, clothianidin, and thiamethoxam. A first assessment done in consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded imidacloprid, clothianidin, and thiamethoxam are likely to adversely affect at least two-thirds of threatened or endangered bird species.

“We urge the EPA to take real action in limiting the use of these harmful chemicals. We are concerned about the determinations EPA could take, considering what happened with malathion,” Kern said.

ABC's seminal report in 2013 has been the foundation for over a decade of action. Recently, ABC met with key federal lawmakers working to curb the prevalence of neonics. ABC has also supported state-level bills restricting the use of neonicotinoids, and is working to ban the use of agricultural pesticides on National Wildlife Refuges.

An astonishing 3 billion birds have been lost since 1970, largely due to human activity. Exposure to pesticides and other toxic chemicals is one of the drivers of these declines, especially among grassland birds and aerial insectivores. ABC will continue to work collaboratively with other conservation organizations and stakeholders to address the threat of toxics and bring back the Americas' birds. 


American Bird Conservancy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving wild birds and their habitats throughout the Americas. With an emphasis on achieving results and working in partnership, we take on the greatest problems facing birds today, innovating and building on rapid advancements in science to halt extinctions, protect habitats, eliminate threats, and build capacity for bird conservation. Find us on abcbirds.org, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter (@ABCbirds).

Media Contact: Jordan Rutter, Director of Public Relations| jerutter@abcbirds.org | @JERutter