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Spraying Fruit Trees is Bad for Birds

Dear Bird Folks,

The trees in my yard are full of new leaves, especially the fruit trees. Soon these trees will be filled with little black worms that will destroy their yields. Usually I spray them with pesticides, but I’ve become concerned with the birds that eat at the feeders, which are next to the trees. Is it safe to continue to spray? With what? I don’t want to lose my fruit.

-Tod, Pembroke, MA


I’m with you Tod,

Fruit rules. Even though I’m a vegetarian, I’d much rather eat fruit. In fact, I would become a fruitarian, but that name sounds even wimpier than vegetarian. Fruit has it all over vegetables. Most fruits are sweeter than vegetables, you don’t have to cook any of them and fruit makes far better desserts than vegetables. There is apple pie, blueberry cobbler, raspberry turnovers, banana bread, strawberry shortcake, just to name a few. What kind of desserts do vegetable give us? Carrot cake? Oh, please.

Whether you like fruit, vegetables or both, the trouble is we aren’t the only ones who like them. Lots of other things do too and that’s where the problems come in. Since the first humans decided that growing food was better than chasing after it with clubs, we have been fighting off the hordes of other creatures that mistakenly thought we like to share. Over the years everything from fire to prayer to voodoo to chemicals have been used to protect crops. All, except maybe prayer, have had clear environmental impacts. The first known chemical insecticides were made from sulfur and were used by the Sumerians back 4,500 years ago. I’m not sure who the Sumerians were, but if they used sulfur they probably came from New Jersey.

Today over a billion pounds of toxic pesticides are dumped on this country each year and the highest percentage of the dumping does not come from commercial farmers, but from homeowners. People like you and I, Tod, are doing more than our fair share spreading these poisons around. The patch of emptiness that we call a lawn are a major target, but ornamental shrubs and, yes, prized fruit trees are also sprayed, dusted and powdered with nasty stuff.

The benefits of spraying are immediate. We get a greener lawn, redder roses and spotless fruit. The long term effects on us humans aren’t as obvious. How these sprays affect the people who eat the fruit or the children who play on the lawn isn’t as clear. What is clear is that pesticides are bird killers. Birds are a 100 times more sensitive to pesticides than mammals. It is estimated that in the U.S. over sixty million birds die annually from pesticide exposure. The reason why we don’t find that many bird bodies is that most are quickly scooped up by scavengers or fast food restaurants. Also, pesticides indirectly cause bird mortality. Insect eating birds and their nestlings may starve if spraying eliminates all the insects in an area.

Bird’s mobility is part of the problem. Because they can fly it’s nearly impossible to keep them away from a recently treated area. Birds die from direct contact with pesticides or from eating the insects or plants that have been sprayed. They die from absorbing toxins when they land on a treated tree or plant. The die after drinking water that is contaminated by runoff. It doesn’t have to be water runoff either. Hummingbirds often obtain their moisture from sipping up the little water droplets that form on the leaves of a tree. If those leaves have been sprayed, the tiny bird is in big trouble. Based on the above information, Tod, you can probably guess that I’m giving a thumbs down to your question about spraying to protect your fruit trees. An easy alternative to spraying is to encourage more birds to your yard. Birds would love to feed those “little black worms” of yours to their nestlings, especially if the worms aren’t dusted with poison. In addition to your feeders, putting out a birdbath, setting up more nest boxes and encouraging the growth of native vegetation will draw more worm-eating birds to your yard.

The other thing you should do is identify which species those little black worms are. By knowing the exact insect you are dealing with, you should be able research a specific, nontoxic way of protecting your trees. But for the sake of the birds, and perhaps even yourself, avoid using pesticides. Like that Joni Mitchell song says: “Give me spots on my apples but leave me the birds and the bees.” Good luck with your fruit trees Tod. Before I go I’d like to make a deal with you. I won’t tell any bird watchers that you once used pesticides if you don’t tell anyone that I’ve been listening to Joni Mitchell. Deal?