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  • Writer's pictureWildCare WNY

The Plight of the Insectivores

Updated: Dec 13, 2020

Tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) nesting in a natural cavity

Many aerial insectivores – or birds that rely on flying insects as a food source – are currently in population decline due to a decrease in insect species and biodiversity.

We as humans often sort of brush insects aside, perceiving them as unimportant compared to more appealing animals and species that we feel a stronger, intimate connections – how could things that ‘feast’ on our blood and eat our crops be good?

A lot of these perceptions are misconceptions, of course. Insects, like any other species, exist in balance with each other and with the other animals in their environment. They have their own predators and prey. We are conditioned to look past this. I remember playing outside during recess as a kid, and being among classmates that were afraid of bees. Like many 9-year-olds, I was frightened of getting stung – a feat that I managed to avoid for nearly a decade. And it wasn’t until high school that I realized that bees and other pollinators were good for the environment. Years later, I wonder if today’s children have the same fear – infographics about bees are now stamped on the back of boxes of cereal and cookie packages. Our world has a tremendous capability to shape the way we think about these things – and we often don’t even think twice about it.

But while honeybees are increasingly framed as beneficial and receive more attention for their plight, other species are glossed over or ignored. The species that are ignored often end up being food species for birds that so many of us love, like swallows. Increasing monoculture - one plant species grown in one place at one time - and a general decrease in biodiversity - a lack of variety in all plant and animal species - harms insect populations across the U.S.

Plant-eating insects are drawn to monocultures because it's all the same food - it provides nutrients in one place. Research suggests more diverse farms have less of a problem with this, as the plants are different from one another and don't offer the same ease of access to desired nutrients as a monoculture. Since monocultures are prevalent in the U.S., neonicotinoid pesticides are often used in attempt to protect crops from insects that can damage them. However, these pesticides are related to nicotine and are shown to impact honeybees; they are linked to colony collapse disorder. The dispersal of this pesticide in a solid ‘seed’-like form leads to neonicotinoid accumulation in soil. This then leeches into waterways through rain and melting snow, which affects populations of insects that swallows and other birds eat. Additionally, these toxins can harm wildlife directly – one single corn seed coated with the neonicotinoid called ‘imidacloprid’ can kill a bird – and toxicity is no good way to go.

Beyond farmland, many stores still carry neonicotinoids available to the average consumer. Many people are unaware that excessive spraying can harm the ecosystem.

Over ¾ of wild flowering plant species in temperate regions require pollination by insects to develop their fruit and seeds, according to an Environmental Research Alliance in Britain. They are also a major food source for birds, bats, and amphibians. Additionally – a biodiverse habitat that includes many different insect species balances out ‘pest’ species – but it’s difficult to maintain these habitats if we micromanage and readily alter ecosystems.

This illustrates the complicated relationship we humans have with the natural world – we forget about the needs of other species, neglecting to recognize our deeper connections to them.

Moreover, the way that we farm relies too much on the concept of monoculture. This predisposes the area to poor soil conditions, a lack of biodiversity, and an inability to host a wide variety of species. In protecting against ‘pest’ species, more may be unintentionally harmed. Using discretion and exploring alternative farming methods may help reduce the need for pesticides to begin with, and provide hardier ecosystems more resistant to invasion and deterioration to begin with.

Essentially, monoculture is problematic. A lack of biodiversity means a reduction in the number of species a habitat can support. For instance, if one bird species likes pine trees and another prefers maples – yet a forest only contains maples – the bird that likes pine trees many not be able to survive. The same can be said at a much smaller scale, down to the plants that grow beneath our feet. Monoculture cannot sustain a diverse array of species.

The solutions needed to combat many of these issues are not easy. But if we are concerned about species decline – we need to be creative and inquisitive; to ask questions and solve problems.

The other day, I took a wrong turn while doing a field survey for work. I found myself on a dry farmland, indented with small, bright green seedlings popping up from the crusty brown earth. As I walked along the edge of the farm, I couldn’t help but feel it was somehow creepy. Each little plant was identical to the one before it. They appeared tended to with care – a testament to the human spirit’s ability to foster growth – but it left me unsettled.

With large die-offs of insects, we will have large avian insectivore, and bat, and amphibian die-offs. If we care, we need to work together to find a way to change.

Purple martins (Progne subis) nesting in man-made gourds

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