By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now
No sooner did I discover some new friends, a Texas barn owl family on Cornell’s Ornithology Cam, than I also found that mom, pop and the four incubating babies were in mortal danger.
That’s because too many people don’t understand that when they use rodenticide, they’re launching a killing spree. Barn owls used to occasionally die from rodenticides. Back in the early 1980s, about 5 percent of dead barn owls were found to have rodenticides in their bodies, presumably because they’d eaten a poisoned rat or mouse, according to The Barn Own Trust. The owls may or may not have died of this exposure.
Today, the proportion of Barn Owls tested that show exposure to rodenticides is “a staggering 91 percent,” according to the conservation group. Caveat: Again, this doesn’t mean the poison killed them; it could have been a “sub-lethal” dose.
Still, that is staggering. Any of you who’ve read Silent Spring are probably now thinking about the bald eagles and how DDT crept up and sent them to live in history with the passenger pigeon. This was a similar story of poison and ignorance. In the name of Rachel Carson, let’s not let this happen to owls.
By the way, it’s not just me and the trust that are concerned. Heartthrob Ian Somerhalder, of Lost and The Vampire Diaries fame, is raising money and awareness about the secondary poisoning of owls through his foundation.
Owls, like so many birds, insects and bees, are suffering these days from the knee-jerk human response to squash things that seem unpleasant. Got an ant problem? Get out the poison. Bugs on the flowers? There’s an array of sprays for that. Rats traipsing around? Time to poison them.
We profess to love birds and yet we’re killing them with all the toxics we launch at varmints. It’s pretty simple elementary school science: We kill their prey and that ripples up the food chain. We even kill songbirds, not directly, but by killing off their food in the pursuit of a perfect lawn.
What’s really sickening is how these practices are so blithely accepted. (Did I mention this was a blog and not a straight “objective” news story?) Few people, apparently, stop to think that when they use a rodenticide, they’re also killing owls and creating toxic bait for small mammals like foxes, which also have been known to die from anticoagulant poisons.
“Ignorance is the biggest problem and it is only made worse by the misleading information on rodenticide containers,” says David Ramsden, a senior conservation officer with the Barn Owl Trust in Great Britain. “The way in which these poisons kill owls and raptors is not even mentioned. Instructions give the impression that bait covering and carcass removal will adequately protect predators but this is simply not true.”
The Barn Owl Trust wants tighter controls on rodenticides and for people to understand their ripple effect.
“The rodenticide industry knows that their products kill owls and birds of prey and yet they do nothing about it. In the UK, government figures show that 84% of Barn Owls, 94% of Kites and 100% of Kestrels are contaminated and some die as a direct result, says Ramsden.
In other words, almost all the birds of prey tested suffer from a sub-lethal doses of poison, while others end up dead from an accumulated or bigger dose. The Barn Owl Trust considers that’s to be an “outrageous” outcome just to allow the pest manufacturers to continue without changes, Ramsden said. (He also said it would be “wonderful” if people could support the trust financially.)
Sometimes rodenticides kill a pet. That happens. And that’s not all. About 10,000 children are accidently exposed to rat and mouse poison every day, according to the EPA, which recently cracked down on rat poisons.
The thrust of the EPA campaign was to stop the use of poisons that let poisoned mice and rats run off, dying later where wildlife, pets and possibly kids can come into contact with them. The EPA is promoting rat and mice traps – with or without poison — that capture or contain the pest animal; and banning poisons with anticoagulants that kill all the animals that eat them slowly and painfully.
The agency took action against D-Con, the one company that refused to comply with the EPA’s required bait/poison changes.
That type of rat bait does threaten kids and pets, but more typically, it’s going to be one of those magnificent raptors that “takes the bait.”
Dale Kemery, the EPA spokesman for pesticides did not get back with us, so we’re not exactly sure how the fight with D-Con ended up. We’ll shoot him another email.
Maybe the Barn Owl Trust’s fight for better labeling – some labels say “harmful to wildlife” but the trust wants it to be more explicit — will lop over to the US so we can all start to understand this problem.
We can all help to turn this tragedy around by using safer rodent control, instead of spreading death far and wide.
1 – Remove access to food. Get rid of whatever the rodents are eating. Cover up chicken feed tightly, for instance.
2 – Remove the places where rodents are hiding or living. Block access holes with cement or ferrous metal balls.
3 – Encourage domestic predators like Barn Owls! Also other types of owls and kestrals. You can even build nest boxes up high. (That’s the funny thing, if we let the raptors alone, we’d have less of a rodent problem. Duh.)
4 – Domestic predators can help in some situations. The Barn Owl Trust recommends Jack Russell terriers, which love “ratting.” Let’s not dwell on this one.
5 – Use live traps (Have-a-Hart and other brands) which can be baited. (This takes time, but builds good karma.)
6 – Non-toxic rodenticide such as Readibait, powdered corn cob, is lethal to rats when it’s all they’re eating, and does not affect predators. (We’ve got some reservations about this, as it starves the rats, not a humane death.)
7 – Fumigants such as aluminum phosphide, which cause a quick, humane death. Call a pest company.
Here’s another tip that’s kid-safe for around the house. Use scented corn cob material to oust rats and mice from a garage at attic, driving them out, where they can live or die of natural predation. Many hardware and farm stores will carry “Fresh Cab,” developed by a North Dakota farmer’s wife who wanted a more humane way and environmentally friendly way to deal with rodent pests.
Find retailers at their website. (The EarthKind company making Fresh Cab cites statistics from a University of California Davis study showing that 77 percent of 138 dead owls analyzed had been exposed to rodent poisons.
For complete list of safer rodenticides, see this EPA list.
(Photo of Barn owl. Take by GRN, courtesy the Cornell Lab of Ornithology http://www.livestream.com/texasbarnowls)
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