Five Ways to Take Action to Reduce Pesticides

Taking action to reduce pesticides can start in your own home and/or garden. Photo by Rosamund Parkinson/Shutterstock

Around 1 billion pounds of conventional pesticides are sprayed and scattered each year in the United States, and many of these chemicals remain in soil and water for months or years, killing far more than just the garden pests we hope to eliminate.

Pesticides can harm birds in a number of ways. They can suppress the insect population and make it more difficult for birds to find food to feed their chicks, and they can poison birds directly if ingested, leading to long-term health impacts or even death. Agricultural fields treated with dangerous pesticides are the biggest source of this threat, but personal pesticide use can also threaten the health of nearby birds. 

If you want to help reduce this threat, it might be confusing to know where to start, but there are things both big and small that you can do in your own life to make a difference for birds. Here are five ways to take action on pesticides:

1. Stay Away From Mosquito Spray

Pesticide warning sign. Photo by Suzanne Tucker/Shutterstock.

We've all had our enjoyment of a warm summer evening spoiled by the telltale whine of a mosquito in our ear. But before you reach for a chemical mosquito repellent or call an exterminator, consider alternatives that minimize impacts on other species. Professional pest control companies often spray organophosphates like malathion, which is hazardous to imperiled bird species like the Kirtland's Warbler and Black-capped Vireo, along with more common backyard species like the Gray Catbird.

If you're trying to keep mosquitoes out of your yard, consider a few structural changes instead. For instance, minimize standing water, which mosquitoes use to lay their eggs. You could also install a fan to increase airflow, making it harder for mosquitoes to sniff you out. Attracting insect-eating birds such as Black-capped Chickadees or Eastern Phoebes to your yard can also help keep mosquitoes at bay, with the added benefit of better birding opportunities close to home.

2. Plant Species Native to Your Area

Native plants have evolved alongside local pests and have developed their own strategies for dealing with them. If you fill your yard with native plants, you will likely need to use fewer pesticides as a result. You can check online or ask a local plant nursery to figure out what is native to your area. 

In addition to requiring fewer pesticides, native plants come with a number of other benefits. Many are perennial, meaning once they are planted and established they will come back year after year. Native plants are better adapted to your region's temperature and average rainfall, meaning they are more resilient to local weather fluctuations. They also provide better habitat for birds, helping you attract more of your feathered neighbors. 

As you add native plants to your yard, also consider that you may be luring birds into contact with hazards around your home. Make sure you treat your windows to help prevent collisions. And be sure to keep cats indoors or contained when outdoors.

3. If You Do Need to Control Pests, Consider Alternative Techniques

If you are trying to cut down on weeds and pests in your garden, consider a few alternative options before reaching for a chemical pesticide. Weeds in a garden can be suppressed by sprinkling corn gluten on the ground, while weeds between pavement cracks can be killed using hot water. Using good old-fashioned elbow grease and weeding by hand is also an option. 

If chemical weed control is absolutely necessary, consider using small amounts of targeted pesticides, and avoiding the most dangerous chemicals. Examples of chemicals to avoid include neonicotinoids (neonics), glyphosate, and carbaryl. If you are buying a pesticide at the store, check the label for these ingredients. Or, try a less toxic DIY solution of white vinegar, salt, and dish soap instead.  

4. Buy Organic and Bird Friendly

Your impact on pesticide use can reach beyond your own home. The seeds of common agricultural plants like corn and soybeans in the U.S. are often coated with neonics, a class of neurotoxic pesticide that can kill birds and non-target insect species that birds eat. When possible, buy organic foods that haven't been treated with pesticides. 

If you aren't sure where to start and like to buy coffee and chocolate, keep an eye out for products with a Bird Friendly label. The Smithsonian has a list of Bird Friendly coffee and chocolate products and where you can find them. These products are not only organic, but also come from farms that maintain high levels of plant diversity for birdlife. Some of these farms even use proceeds from the products they sell to set aside uncultivated native habitat for wildlife. Read more about bird-friendly agriculture in our recent web story

5. Make Your Voice Heard by Signing American Bird Conservancy Action Alerts

Finally, a powerful action you can take is to advocate for better pesticide regulations at the national and state level. A great place to start is signing one of American Bird Conservancy's (ABC's) Action Alerts. For instance, use this form to contact your Senators and voice your support for the Protect America's Children from Toxic Pesticides Act. Or, speak up for better neonics regulations by supporting the Save America's Pollinators Act.