Lawn Treatments That Are Safe for Birds
By: Julie Day
Pesticides pose a serious threat to birds.
Are there any lawn treatments that are safe for birds? I stopped having a professional lawn treatment service because it drove the birds away. -Jean
Pesticides – including weed killers, fungicides, insecticides, and rodenticides – can be highly toxic to birds, both by directly poisoning them and by altering the ecosystem they depend on for survival. It’s estimated that at least 67 millions birds die in the U.S. each year due to pesticide toxicity. In addition to bird mortality, pesticides have been shown to harm birds by:
- Killing insects that are eaten by birds.
- Accumulating in fish and small animals, which are then passed to predatory birds at higher doses.
- Killing plants that produce edible seeds.
- Eliminating vegetation used for nesting and escape from predators.
- Causing nonlethal, but nonetheless dangerous, health issues among surviving birds, including thinned eggshells, suppressed immune systems, and disorientation while migrating.
Even products labeled “nontoxic” have an effect on the environment in ways we may not see or understand. In general, insecticides are pretty toxic across the board – not only do they destroy the birds’ insect food, but they generally contaminate the air, plants, leaves, seeds, and flowers, resulting in direct harm to the birds’ health. Weed killers have varying degrees of toxicity depending on the product and how it’s used. Even fertilizers are notorious for water pollution, which in turn affects both the birds and their food sources.
Predatory birds are threatened by toxins that accumulate in prey animals.
Chemicals to Avoid Using Around Birds
When choosing products for your lawn and garden, be sure to look at the ingredient list. The following is a list of pesticides known to be particularly harmful to birds. Some are commonly available in garden centers, and others may be used by a professional lawn service.
- Brodifacoum (rat poison)
- Carbaryl (Sevin)
- DNOC (dinitro-o-cresol)
- Methyl parathion
Choose Safer Alternatives
While no chemicals are completely safe, here are a few choices that are considered less toxic to birds:
- 2, 4-D
- Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis)
- Corn gluten meal
- Insecticidal soaps and oils
- Ladybugs, lacewings, wasps, and other predatory insects
- Traps and species-specific baits
Tips for Bird-Friendly Gardening
As you look for solutions to problems in your yard, here are some tips for keeping your lawn safer for birds.
- Don’t Fumigate: If nothing else, avoid large-scale spraying of any chemicals in your yard, even those considered organic or nontoxic. Birds’ respiratory systems are far more sensitive than ours, and they can easily be harmed by fumes.
- Target Source: Instead of dispersing chemicals over the entire yard, target problems more directly with a lower-impact solution. For example, carefully spraying or painting herbicide directly onto the leaves of a problem weed will be less toxic than applying a weed control product to the whole yard.
- Use Fewer Products: Focus on keeping your grass and garden healthy using compost, rich soil, proper mowing practices, and smarter plant choices, rather than fighting off problems with chemicals.
- Remember the Ecosystem: Even nontoxic products, such as vinegar to kill weeds, can harm worms and insects in the soil, which then affects the birds that eat them. Whenever you approach a problem in your yard, consider the entire system, from insects to water runoff to native habitats. As much as possible, make sure your solutions touch only the problem, and not the world around it.
Always think of the birds before you spray!
- When It Comes to Pesticides, Birds are Sitting Ducks (Smithsonian)
- The Audubon Guide to Home Pesticides (audubon.org)
- Protect Birds from Poisons and Toxic Chemicals (multiscope.com)
- Pesticides and Birds (Journal of Pesticide Reform)
- How to Target Weeds in Your Yard (video)
- Vinegar Weed Killer (video)
- How to Kill Weeds Using Boiling Water (video)
- Organic Pest Control (video)
- The Debate Over Organic vs. Chemical Fertilizers (article)
- Grapefruit Slug Control (video)