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Historical pesticide applications coincided with an altered diet of aerially-foraging insectivorous chimney swifts

Swift in flight photo Credit Mike Veltri

Inside Fleming Chimney sampling guano, credit Chris Grooms Fleming Hall Chimney, credit Chris Grooms photo of swift in chimney, credit Bruce Di Labio

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50 years of bird poop links DDT with changing bird menus

Populations of insect-eating birds in North America, such as the chimney swift, have been in long-term decline for unknown reasons, but new research suggests that DDT and bird diet may have played a role.

Chimney swifts gather in large groups each night to roost in chimneys. After several decades of swifts using a large chimney at Queen’s University’s Fleming Hall, Chris Grooms discovered at its base a remarkably well-preserved deposit, representing about 50 years of bird droppings.

Analysis of the 2 m high accumulation of droppings showed that DDT use peaked at the same time that there was a dramatic reduction in the abundance of beetles (insects especially susceptible to DDT) in the diet of swifts. This illustrates an impact of DDT that adds to its already infamous role in the thinning of eggshells.

“Decreased consumption of beetles can be linked with swift population declines over several decades,” says lead author Joe Nocera, an adjunct professor at Queen’s and research scientist with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. “It is startling to see first-hand how destructive DDT was and the degree of carry-over effects on non-target species.”

The study shows that the peak of DDT use in the mid-20th century occurred when swifts switched from foraging primarily on beetles to eating lower-quality food. Today, swift populations have declined low enough that they are considered a Threatened Species in Ontario and across Canada.

"We already knew that DDT spraying in the 1950s and 60s reduced beetle populations in this area,” says co-author Linda Kimpe of the University of Ottawa. “But our study is the first to show how DDT may have altered the diets of insect-eating birds like swifts."

“Certainly there are many other deposits in large chimneys around North America and elsewhere, forming important environmental time capsules,” says biology professor and co-author John P. Smol, Canada Research Chair in Environmental Change, and previous winner of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Herzberg Gold Medal as Canada’s top scientist. “It may be a stinky job, but someone has to do it!”

Other members of the research team include University of Ottawa professor Jules Blais, Trent University’s David Beresford and Leah Finity, several Queen’s University researchers: Christopher Grooms, Kurt Kyser, and Neal Michelutti, and Thompson Rivers University professor Matthew Reudink. Funding for the research comes from NSERC and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources.

These findings were published in the prestigious international journal Proceedings of the Royal Society-B.
 

PLEASE NOTE: A PDF copy of the study can be obtained from the Proceedings of the Royal Society website, or contact Dr. John Smol at smolj@queensu.ca or Joseph Nocera joe.nocera@ontario.ca for a copy.

Contact: Anne Craig
Communications Officer
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Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario, Canada
613-533-2877

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NOTE:  For high resolution JPEGS related to this paper, Click Here.

Contact Information for authors:
 
Joseph J. Nocera
Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources
Trent University, Peterborough, ON, Canada K9J 7B8
Phone: 705-755-5220
email: joe.nocera@ontario.ca
Jules M. Blais
University of Ottawa Ottawa, ON Canada K1N 6N5
Phone: (613) 562-5800 Ext. 6650
email: jules.blais@uottawa.ca
David Beresford
Department of Biology, Trent University, Peterborough, ON, Canada K9J 7B8
Leah K. Finity
Department of Biology, Trent University, Peterborough, ON, Canada K9J 7B8
Christopher J. Grooms
Paleoecological Environmental Assessment and Research Lab, Department of Biology, Queen’s University, Kingston, ON, Canada K7L 3N6
And Kingston Field Naturalists, Kingston, ON, Canada K7L 3N6; Phone: 613-533-6000 Ext. 74088
email: groomsc@queensu.ca
Lynda E. Kimpe
University of Ottawa Ottawa, ON Canada K1N 6N5
Phone: (613) 562-5800 Ext. 6650
T. Kurt Kyser
Department of Geological Sciences and Geological Engineering, Queen’s University, Kingston, ON, Canada K7L 3N6
Neal Michelutti
Paleoecological Environmental Assessment and Research Lab (PEARL)
Department of Biology, Queen's University
116 Barrie St., Kingston, ON, Canada K7L 3N6
Telephone: 613.533.6159
email: nm37@queensu.ca
Matthew W. Reudink
Department of Biological Sciences, Thompson Rivers University, Kamloops,
BC, Canada V2C 0C8
John P. Smol
Paleoecological Environmental Assessment and Research Lab (PEARL)
Department of Biology, Queen's University
116 Barrie St.
Kingston, ON, Canada, K7L 3N6
Telephone: 613-533-6147
e-mail: smolj@queensu.ca

Link to related studies done at PEARL