Blue Ridge Naturalist: Pesticides Are a Danger to All Life

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A dead bluebird pair, possibly killed by pesticides, lies beside its eggs that will never hatch. Photo: Paula Ziebarth.
A dead bluebird pair, possibly killed by pesticides, lies beside its eggs that will never hatch. Photo: Paula Ziebarth.

Local bluebirder Ron Kingston alerted me in April to a distressingly sad situation that occurred in a cemetery in central Ohio. He’d heard from Paula Ziebarth, who monitors nest boxes in the area, that a mated pair of Eastern Bluebirds had died after workers had put out earthworm-shaped poison bait (a product made by Bell Laboratories under the brand name of Talpirid) to kill moles.

It’s not clear if the birds had found “worms”—that perhaps someone had accidentally dropped onto the ground—and eaten them, unaware that within mankind’s world, something that looks every bit like an earthworm is not necessarily an earthworm. But even if the bluebirds didn’t eat this poison bait, there’s plenty to be concerned about.

(It should be noted that if the bait had been deliberately placed on top of the ground instead of within the mole tunnels, that application would be in violation of the manufacturer’s instructions for use.)

First of all, the idea of shaping poison bait into something that many different kinds of animals would think they could eat is horribly shortsighted. It’s akin to creating candy-shaped poison to be used in the home where a child might mistake it for a treat.

Additionally, this bait has been given “an attractive smell for hungry moles,” which means any animal able to smell it within a mole tunnel will be enticed to dig it up.  Raccoons, skunks, and bears have a keen sense of smell and habitually dig up soil to feed upon underground critters.

Pets have sometimes been the unintended victims of pesticides, which people find abhorrent. Yet society has accepted the use of poisons to kill wildlife of every sort.  What has happened to our humanity that most people accept the willful poisoning of these creatures when it’s terribly mean-spirited to cause any living being to die an excruciatingly painful death?

It’s as if people have lost their sense of compassion when it comes to wild animals, as though these critters pose such an enormous threat to their own well-being that they are somehow not worthy of mercy. Yet what crime is a mole guilty of that it should be given a death sentence?

Is making raised tunnels in grass or garden—tunnels that could easily be tamped down by foot and avoided by anyone not wishing to sink into the dirt—truly a crime worthy of poisoning when the critter is simply doing its job for the benefit of people? Yes, that is exactly what a mole is doing. It controls the numbers of organisms living within the soil so your environment can function properly.

When a mole feeds upon grubs—beetle larvae that normally feed upon dead plant roots to recycle them—it keeps the grubs from overpopulating the area. By having their numbers limited, these immature beetles won’t run out of dead roots and be forced into feeding upon the roots of living plants to avoid starving.

The mole’s action thus helps to perpetuate the life of both plants and grubs. Plants can’t remain healthy and strong without roots, so they would be unable to perpetuate themselves. Eventually the area could become devoid of plants, which means there would be no food for future generations of grubs that are necessary to recycle nutrients back into the soil for the benefit of future generations of plants.

When a mole feeds upon earthworms, it perpetuates their existence as well. If the earthworms become overpopulated, they too will run out of food and die off. The disappearance of earthworms would impact plants not only because earthworms are recyclers of nutrients that plants require for good health, but also because earthworms aerate the soil for the benefit of plants. Their roots require air, which is why plants do poorly in compacted soil.

The mole in your yard, garden, or cemetery (there is typically only one mole except during mating season) keeps these closed biological loops functioning properly.  If you want your plants to remain healthy, you want your mole to do its job.

But even though there is no need to be killing a mole in a yard or garden, is there a need in cemeteries? Perhaps if folks would make the effort to understand our wildlife and to recognize the importance of these animals to their own existence, they wouldn’t mind being more vigilant about watching where they stepped within the cemetery.

Signs could be placed at entrances to alert visitors to the presence of mole tunnels, which the groundskeepers could do their best to tamp down.

Folks might realize the silliness of the things they get upset over if they weren’t so concerned with “perfection.”  Today’s world is one in which appearances are everything, whether it be one’s own personal appearance or the appearance of one’s possessions, including his yard. Many people see mole tunnels as imperfections in their lawn’s appearance or, worse yet, as destructive of the health of the lawn.

In fact, the view that many forms of wildlife are exceedingly destructive and/or dangerous is ridiculously prevalent among folks these days. You can’t watch TV, listen to the radio, or read a newspaper without being exposed to ads for “pest” control.  These ads don’t stick to facts; they exaggerate the supposed negative impacts of many kinds of animals upon people.

Even scientists talk about “pests’, even though the whole idea of organisms existing to destroy the very world that supports them is nonsensical.  (Perhaps researchers take their cue from man, who’s the only creature to knowingly sabotage his surroundings.)

Life is all about perpetuating life, which can’t happen if insects, for example, are out there destroying the very plants they require for future generations of their own kind.  The only reason people run into difficulties with plants being overwhelmed by insects is because people create improperly functioning environments in which plant-feeding insects are not kept limited by predators.

People completely misunderstand how the natural world works, and they are constantly bombarded with the idea that any wildlife causing the least bit of inconvenience or risk of harm to them should be killed. As a result, we have children and adults alike who expect to live their lives without ever seeing certain kinds of wildlife within their sphere of existence.

A few years ago I was told about an experience someone had while talking with an Albemarle County elementary school custodian. A young girl of eight or nine approached the custodian with a teacher by her side. She wanted to tell him, with much concern, mind you, that there was a dead spider outside the building.

Yes, she was concerned about a spider that was where it belonged, not one that had found its way into the building. However, even if the spider had been inside, it should not have caused such consternation as to require informing the custodian.

Viewing the natural world only from their own perspective, humans have totally misread it and are destroying it. We need to get back to seeing “Mother Nature” as the nurturing entity that this name so accurately depicts.

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