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Purple Martins and Pesticides

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A Bird's Home

Pesticides

Lately, there has been much controversy on whether or not to use pesticides in purple martin nests in order to control insect pests such as blowflies and nest mites. This is one of the most controversial issues I've run across in this hobby and the following is where I stand on it.

First some background:

When I first started out with hosting martins, I ran into a number of problems and at the time, I really didn't know where to turn for help. I knew a few people that had them, but when I asked them about what to do, I seemed to get a different answer from each one of them. I quickly learned that even though I was new in the martin hobby and relatively inexperienced, I knew just as much as most of them. Being the kind of person that wasn't satisfied with the kind of answers I got, I went searching. I got hold of some books and of course, at that time, the internet was new, but I did find a few web sites. The book authors seemed to know what they were talking about as well as the authors of the internet sites, but again the information I was looking for varied from author to author or was non-existent at all. So, I kept digging, and little by little, my knowledge increased, and I was slowly beginning to understand this hobby a little better.

Well, many martin seasons have now come and gone and I still sit, marvel and wonder about these beautiful birds. At my home site, I'm constantly making changes, doing testing and generally trying to see just what makes these birds tick. What things do they like and dislike? What works and what don't? Compartment sizes, entrance hole sizes and shapes and even things like how high should the housing be and do they like or dislike a full nest of new material when they first arrive back each spring?. I've run into all kinds of problems and through research data from other organizations and my own experience, I've managed to overcome most of them and have a fairly nice and lively colony to show for it. The world in changing and the way things used to be are also changing and it's our responsibility to educate ourselves and keep pace with it.

However... there is one issue in the purple martin hobby that nobody has taken by the hand and run with yet and that's the use of pesticides (in particular, 5% Sevin) in martin nests to control nest mites. When I first ran into these little critters, I was totally baffled. Nowhere could I find any good literature about what to do about them. At that time, there were three main thoughts.

Leave things as they are and let nature take its course. However, my own common sense tells me that's not a smart decision at all. These young birds had nowhere to go to escape these pests and were literally being eaten alive by them and if I'm going to keep martins, then I'm going to do something about the mites.

Total nest changes, removing the old nesting material, wiping down the nest cavity and replacing with a totally new nest. But, no matter how hard we try, it doesn't get rid of all the mites and within a short time, the process has to be repeated again and if a lot of nests are had, that could get to be time consuming. I tried the nest changes, but the mites got everywhere. On my hands, arms, on my clothes and even in my hair. My wife wasn't about to let me in her house with these things crawling all over me. Plus, there were the mites that were still on the baby birds and in the nests. All they did was lay more eggs and more mites were the results.

And third, the use of a substance called Diatomaceous Earth or DE for short. I tried the DE and as best I could tell, nothing happened. In the days following the treatment, I saw no appreciable change in the number of mites and in the mean time, the baby birds were being devoured and I know that couldn't be a good feeling. There just had to be a better way to treat these pests so that they were gotten rid of once and for all.

So, I started my digging. What other materials could be used to control mites? I have enough common sense to know that some materials are harmful to young birds and I didn't want to use any of those, especially anything that 'sprayed' from a can. However, I already knew that 5% Sevin dust was a very mild pesticide and I looked into it. Wow! Talk about stirring up a hornets nest. This was one subject that really brought out the differences in people.

The issue was brought up a few times on The Purple Martin Forum and became a very passionate debate between pro-Sevin and anti-Sevin forces. So, one day, a guy by the name of Kenny Kleinpeter from Baton Rouge, LA. and myself decided to take it upon ourselves and investigate deeper into this issue. The final results are linked at the end of this article for anyone else that wants to read it for themselves so they too can make an informed decision. The issue became so hotly contested in fact, that the PMCA has decided to do and in-depth study themselves on the use of Sevin for mite control in wild birds nests.

One thing I noticed in the course of my digging and debating was that people were one of three general attitudes. The "no comment" attitude, the "anti-Sevin" attitude or the "pro Sevin" attitude. All three have their stands and their reasons why they feel the way they do, but I for one wanted to know more, hence my decision to dig a whole lot deeper into the subject.

I found that the "no comment" individuals seemed to be either on the fence or didn't want to rock the boat. They might have monetary interests or a public image to preserve and didn't want to be seen as controversial. However, not being one that worries about public image, I'm definitely not in this group.

I also found that many "opponents" to the use of pesticides would fall back on one particular label on the package that states, "The use of this pesticide should not be used in any manner that is illegal or unsafe". Well, no kidding... In fact, everything manufactured in the U.S. has a label that says that. It's known as a 'cover thy butt' statement so that the product manufacturers don't get sued by everybody that tries to use their product for uses it wasn't intended. That statement is for people that try to trim their hedge with a push lawnmower, cut their arms off and then try and sue the manufacturer because he didn't see a label that said not to trim hedges with his push mower. Or the lady that pulls into a drive through, asks for a hot cup of coffee and then drives away with it stuck between her legs, spills it and burns her legs beyond recognition and then sues because there wasn't a label that said "hot coffee is hazardous". I'm one that believes we need to use a little 'common sense' in our daily lives, a trait that is surprisingly lacking in a lot of individuals.

Although not always, many 'opponents' to using Sevin look at it as, 'pesticides are poisons' and don't bother to go into any more depth on the subject to find out any information for themselves. They have a general dislike for pesticides and let it run over into this issue. They are usually known as 'anti-Sevin'. Again, although not always, many of these people haven't done any background work on the issue and are only repeating something that they heard from someone else.

An then there's the folks that 'use it' but don't come right out and say it. They know Sevin works, the mites are gone, the birds seem healthy and that's all that matters to them. They're just afraid that, if they speak out in public, they'll be pounded by all the anti-Sevin forces about its use, so they just keep it to themselves. Their nests are mite free and the young don't have to suffer in the nests from thousands of mini-mouths that are sucking the life blood out of them because they are powerless to get away from it.

I'm the kind of person that likes to know as much about a subject as I can and in this case, I definitely wanted to know as much as possible, because I am dealing with a poison.. Yes, I do agree it is a poison, it kills insects and I wouldn't want to use anything on my birds that would harm them, so I started digging. I dug and printed until I had mounds of paperwork in front of me and then I started reading. (If you want to see for yourself what I ran into, just do an internet search on the word "Carbaryl" and start reading). I found all kinds of information on Carbaryl, (N-methylcarbamate), the main ingredient in Sevin. Although I don't know exactly how Kenny did his, I'm fairly sure the same general procedure was followed. I hi-lighted every thing that was either pro or con on the material, thus condensing it. From that information I then sorted to fit my study, removing all the aquatic references, all the pet references and vegetable references and kept the parts that referenced birds and then, once compiled, I made my conclusion.

One good thing about doing a search for myself, I found out a lot of things I didn't know before. I found that Carbaryl was developed for the poultry industry to keep the chicken mites off of them and since I was interested in birds, I kept my study zeroed in on them. Carbaryl is very toxic to aquatic invertebrates, but I'm not planning on using it near my pond. It's very toxic to honeybees and other garden insects, but I'm not planning on using it there, either. Nowhere did I find anything that was detrimental to using this on birds. Everywhere I found disclaimer words like "may" and "possible" or "inconclusive results" or "inconclusive data". I found nothing that claimed it was carcinogenic such as is seen on the DE bag. If the label is read on the bag the Sevin comes in, you'll find the typical precautionary statements having to do with humans and it even describes how to rub it on your pets, but nowhere does it say anything about birds. In fact, in the study, very little information was found on its use for birds, even though it was formulated for chickens.

My conclusion:

Sevin, (Carbaryl), is one of the most widely used pesticides on the market today. It's used in our gardens for our fruits and vegetables and it's used on our pets for mite and flea control. The method for use are very controllable. The quantities used can also be controlled very accurately. The active ingredient, N-methylcarbamate, becomes inert after 3 days and thus becoming harmless. Plain old harmless Talcum powder is used as the substrate of which each bag contains 95%. Sevin was developed for use on birds with no or very low side affects indicated. And although it is a poison, it is the least dangerous to us humans. In fact, as far as poisons go, it is the least dangerous to use, period.

Now, is all of this grounds to consider Sevin (Carbaryl) harmless in bird nests, probably not. But at least I educated myself on the subject enough to at least know what I was talking about rather than simply stating that it's a poison and "poisons are poisons" and therefore shouldn't be used period. And I'm not one to jump on someone else's band wagon just to fit in. I want to educate myself and then make my own decisions from the knowledge that I gain. In fact, to gain even more knowledge about the subject, I'm doing testing to see just how much it can be cut, (using pure talcum powder to do the cutting) to see just how little can be used and still be effective. The PMCA is aware of my testing and I'm keeping them informed of my progress.

At present, my treatment consists of using 'less' than a level 'teaspoon' of Sevin spread just inside the entrance hole of my martin nests, then tap the nest material so that it settles down into the material and I have "no" mite problems at all in them. It doesn't have to be over done to kill them and 'one' treatment per year is all that is required. Am I telling you to use it? NO. If you want to do nest replacements to treat your mites, then fine. Have at it. But I just don't have the time to change out all the nests that I have.

In this modern day and time, I am not so naive to think that we can get along without chemical poisons. In fact, it's just the opposite. Every single fruit and vegetable we buy from the market today has chemicals used on them to get them to market in the shape they are seen. Anybody that doesn't think that statement is true should follow a farmer around some day. And, the chemicals that the farmer is using on that fruit is many times worse than 5% Sevin dust.

Oh, and for anyone that believes that Diatomaceous Earth (DE) works in the control of nest mites in martin houses, you're only kidding yourself. And, if you stop to think about it, if it is abrasive and cuts the exoskeletons of insects, imagine what it does to the lungs of baby birds that have to breathe it all day. Plus, the label on the package says that it "may" be a carcinogen and that means, cancer causing. So, really, who's doing the most harm?

Sevin Investigation:

The following links will take you to the results of the Sevin investigation done by Kenny and myself. They are archived on the PMCA page and the intro to them is here http://forum.purplemartin.org/ArchivedPosts/sevin intro.htm

The Anti-Sevin version http://forum.purplemartin.org/ArchivedPosts/sevin%20anti.htm

And the Pro-Sevin version http://forum.purplemartin.org/ArchivedPosts/sevin pro.htm


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