Pesticides Make Migrating Birds Lose their Way

Guest Blog post by Dr. Bridget Stutchbury

Dr. Bridget Stutchbury

Pesticides are widely recognized as a risk to birds that forage in agricultural environments especially during migration. Since many current use insecticides are potent neurotoxins, we speculated that they could have behavioural effects in small songbirds landing in agricultural fields during their journey north if they consume tainted seeds or granules when they stop to fuel.

So we designed a study to test whether low level exposure to 2 widely used insecticides – imidacloprid  (a neonicotinoid) and chlorpyrifos  (an organophosphate) could disrupt the migratory ability of a wild-caught songbird. White-crowned sparrows, a common seed eater, were captured on migration and held in captivity at the Facility for Applied Avian Research at the University of Saskatchewan. After acclimation, we exposed the birds to either a low or high dose of either imidacloprid or chlorpyrifos at concentrations they could realistically encounter in the environment, and tested their orientation in a series of Emlen funnel migration trials before dosing, during the 3 day exposure, and during the recovery period.

What surprised us was how sensitive and rapid the effects were, particularly to imidacloprid.

The birds showed a significant loss of body mass and signs of acute poisoning (lethargy and loss of appetite). The migration trials also showed that birds completely failed to orient or changed their northward orientation, whereas controls continued to behave as expected.  While the chlorpyrifos treated birds did not show toxicity in terms of weight loss, they too lost their migratory orientation.   In the wild, we calculated that these effects would be seen if the birds consumed just a few treated seeds or granules mistaken as grit.

We were encouraged that most birds survived, and could recover following the cessation of dosing, but the effects we saw were severe enough that the birds would likely experience migratory delays or changes in their flight routes that could reduce their chance of survival or cause a missed breeding opportunity.

Neonics.test dishes.46D264BD00000578-5130721-image-a-14_1511999806724

Since these chemicals are used over vast areas of North America and the timing of application directly overlaps with spring migration, the results of this study raises serious concern about the risk of increasing use of seed and granular pesticide treatments to millions of migrating songbirds.


The study is a collaboration between Margaret Eng, PhD Candidate, Dr. Christy Morrissey, Avian toxicologist, University of Saskatchewan and Dr. Bridget Stutchbury, Biologist, York Unniversity. 


Here is the article published in the peer-reviewed Scientific Reports.  Stutch.Morrissey.Eng_et_al-2017_Sparrow toxicity IMI CPF_Scientific_Reports

Media coverage:

The Guardian

Daily Mail UK


The Ortolan Bunting Will Finally Be Off the Menu in France!

 “We have won our battle against Ortolan Bunting trapping and the phenomenon is basically wiped out from Les Landes.”

 THE MESSENGER took audiences into the fields of Les Landes, in south-west West France, to witness the illegal hunting of Ortolan Bunting, a practise that was decimating local populations.  Now, the Ortolan Bunting will finally be off the menu in France!  No other European songbird has declined as rapidly in recent years, with an overall decline of 84% since 1980 due to poaching and intensive agriculture – this, despite hunting of the species being forbidden by French law since 1999 when it became a protected species.   Because the Ortolan dish is considered a cultural tradition, authorities had often turned a blind eye to the activities of poachers.


Ortolan in

For the past 10 years, LPO (League for the Protection of the Oiseaux) the BirdLife International partner in France has been fighting this illegal practice on the ground, and also in the air, where alongside CABS (Committee Against Bird Slaughter), they have been identifying trapping sites and releasing the birds, before alerting the authorities. Until recently, these interventions were the only way to identify and prosecute the poachers, who operated with the blessing of local elected officials and hunting officials, and who claimed that the state “tolerated” these practices. Indeed the authorities wouldn’t file charges for installations of 30 traps or less. More on the practise and new developments in this article from Bird Life International.  

The French Ministry of the Environment requested  guidelines to study the Ortolans on a continental scale. 

Frédéric Jiguet from Museum National D’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, (featured in The Messenger) partnered with other scientists from more than 12 countries across EU to conduct the study.  He also worked in partnership with ONCFS (French Hunting & Wildlife National Office).  


Frédéric Jiguet and his colleagues research work helped convince French Ecology Minister, Nicolas Hulot, to call for a definitive end to the hunting.  This was followed up in the field with a high pressure from the police this past fall, so there are now very few poachers.

The main conclusions are that the numbers migrating by south-west France are estimated on average   only 81,000 pairs (300,000 individuals including juveniles), with a recent decline estimated between -20% and -30%, while the overall trend of birds using the western flyway, or the eastern flyway, is a decline of lower amplitude estimated between -10% and -20%. The birds flying by south-west come mainly from Poland (probably 75%), the others coming mainly from Germany and Sweden, and also from Norway (where there are only astonishingly only 10 breeding pairs left) – so almost only from EU countries.   The first pages of the report are a summary of overall results, then detailed parts on each techniques.  (genetics, isotopes, geolocators). (see links below) 


Andrea Rutigilano, an on-the ground warrior for CABS also featured in the film says, “We have won our battle against Ortolan Bunting trapping and the phenomenon is basically wiped out from Les Landes.”

Frédéric JIGUET sent us the links to this comprehensive research study about the Ortolan Bunting.

You can download the full Ortolan Bunting report in English at this link.    

The report is also available in French here

The Messenger Takes Flight in the UK!

SongbirdSOS Productions Inc. and  Films à Cinq are pleased to announce that our award-winning feature documentary THE MESSENGER directed by Su Rynard is taking flight in the UK.  It is being released into UK cinemas, starting October 26th.   This cinematically beautiful and poignant documentary is essential viewing for anyone who cares about the environment and nature.  THE MESSENGER explores mankind’s deep-seated connection to the world’s songbirds and the devastating impact humans have had on bird species. It is an enlightening introduction to the global scientific research being done to further bird conservation.  The release of the film is timely, as more than a quarter of the UK Birds are in serious decline. * 

The UK tour of THE MESSENGER starts at Purbeck Film Festival in Wareham October 26, before travelling to Nottingham, Oswestry, Suffolk, Manchester and Liverpool.

On her drive to make the film director Su Rynard commented, “Birds are our ‘early warning system’ and this was one of the inspirations behind the film. Since ancient times we have looked to birds to foretell the future. Changes in the flights or songs of birds can signal the coming of storms, the change of season, or the dawn of a new day. A decline in the numbers or health of birds points to changes in the environment. Now is a critical time for the world’s climate and ecosystems. Birds have something to tell us, and I wanted to amplify their message.”   


Screenings will feature guest hosts, including the Wildlife Trust and the RSPB.

Bird & Wild, a Bird Friendly coffee company is providing goodie bags at select screenings.  Bird & Wild is one of the UK’s only Smithsonian certified Bird Friendly® coffee roasters and it is on a mission to help protect migrating birds and support the RSPB, while offering triple certified, great tasting Fairtrade organic coffee, one cup at a time.

Canadian producer Joanne Jackson says ” We are excited to be working with Nottingham based PIPOCA for the UK release. Sally Hodgson from PIPOCA has tremendous experience releasing films that make an impact with audiences.  We believe THE MESSENGER will find an enthusiastic audience in the UK, because as any committed ‘twitcher’ or nature lover will attest, the sport of Birdwatching is a very popular past-time in the UK.”         


The Messenger will become available on DVD in the UK in December and can be pre-ordered online now.  Up-to-date details on screenings and the DVD purchases for educational or home use can be found here.  PIPOCA.NEW_WebLarge







Cinema Listings:

Purbeck Film Festival @ The Rex Cinema, Wareham,

Thursday 26 October, 8.15pm, sponsored by Biotrack.  Q and A and Bird tracking devices will be demonstrated.  Tickets: or 01929 552 778


Broadway Cinema, Nottingham,

Saturday 28 October, 2 pm,  With Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust    Tickets: or 0115 952 6611


Picturehouse @ FACT, Liverpool 

Sunday 26 November,   1 pm. With RSPB Liverpool,  Tickets:  or 0871 902 5737


Aldeburgh Cinema, Suffolk

Sunday 3 December, 3 pm, With the Suffolk Ornithologists’ Group and Suffolk Wildlife Trust.  Tickets: or 01728 454884


HOME, Manchester

Friday 29 December, 3:50 pm, Tickets: or 0161 200 1500.


Running length: 90 minutes. Advisory rating – PG

Movie Trailer:

Twitter: @themessengerdoc


* Reference:

THE MESSENGER is a Canada/France co-production by SongbirdSOS Productions Inc. and Films à Cinq/ARTE France that has played on over 160 screens in North America and continues to screen for audiences in Canada, and the USA. For screening requests and additional ways to view the film go to

Humans Not The Only Species Feeling the Housing Squeeze: Guest Blog by Mark Bell


First of all…a confession: I’m not much of a birder. Robins, House Sparrows, Cardinals, no problem, but beyond that I am not to be trusted.

So it was a bit of a surprise even to myself when I recently became obsessed with my local population of Chimney Swifts. I noticed them one evening around dusk in my Parkdale neighbourhood in downtown Toronto. Their bat-like movements and constant chittering intrigued me and it didn’t take much research for even me to make a positive I.D.


These aerial insectivores spend pretty much all their waking hours in the sky collecting small insects and any other aerial plankton that might be swirling in the air above our heads. You will never see a Chimney Swift land in your backyard, or on your feeder, you will not even see one perching on a branch or on a wire. These birds are in constant motion, and when they are not in flight they retreat to the inner safety of their chosen chimney. So while these city-dwelling birds are easy to spot, they are almost impossible to really see.


Originally they would have lived in the old-growth forests where dead, hollowed out trees provided the sort of deep, protected nesting locations they favour. Ever since we cut down our older forests the Swifts have learned to adapt to the concrete jungles we have built in their place. The architecture of most chimneys mimics the hollow trees they were used to and they can easily cling to and build their nests on the rough brick interiors of these chimneys.


Sadly for Chimney Swifts, the current trend in new construction does not allow for large (or even small) open chimneys, and even older buildings are starting to cap existing chimneys or line them with metal to make them more fire-safe, measures that prevent Swifts from nesting there.


I live in the Parkdale section of Toronto which is blessed with some lovely old buildings from an era when industry once flourished alongside residential areas. The prevalence of older industrial buildings (and their chimneys) in this part of town probably explains why the aerial gymnastics of Chimney Swifts are on constant display here during the summer months.


IMG_0905 crop


Of all the species of songbirds, it is the aerial insectivores that are having the most difficulty in recent years. Many of these are at critically low population counts with some, like the Chimney Swift, down by 95% since 1968. There are many factors involved in this pattern of decline, and in all likelihood, this constant and gradual disappearance of housing opportunities is a contributing factor.



For a city-dweller such as myself, one of the extraordinary things about the Chimney Swift is that I don’t need to travel to the Boreal Forest to catch a glimpse of this rare bird. It can be as easy as sitting on my deck with a coffee, staring up into the sky.

And with only a minimum amount of effort I can take my observations one step further and contribute my data to the Bird Studies Canada SwiftWatch database. Because these birds are in such serious decline, the data that citizen scientists can contribute is of tremendous importance. Gathering information on their numbers and nesting locations helps to keep track of their population and overall health.


Swifts are incredibly elusive, but they have one behavioral trait that is predictable: within 20 minutes before or after sunset they will come home to roost for the night in their chosen chimney.

As a Swift-watcher all I have to do is stake out a chimney in my neighbourhood around sunset and watch to see how many, if any, enter the chimney. You might think staring up a chimney for half an hour might be boring, but there is an unbelievable rush of satisfaction when you are lucky enough to witness a Swift entering a chimney. These birds are incredibly agile and as they swoop and dive they can reach remarkable speeds as they race back and forth collecting dinner in their open beaks, but when they decide to call it a night they will glide over their chimney and for a split-second appear to pause in midair, before dropping themselves down, disappearing into the opening of the chimney. Some go headfirst, others perform a twisting sort of pirouette to slow their entry, others go feet first, but each entry is as elegant as it is mysterious.




Chimney Swift_2946_artuso_crop

I’ve been observing these birds since the Spring. I’ve watched them pair up and take nesting material to their chimneys. (They have a one-nest-per-chimney rule, regardless of how big the chimney is). I’ve seen them making more frequent visits later in the summer, presumably to feed their newly hatched fledglings. I’ve seen families flying in formation in what I can only assume is a kind of flight school for young Swifts. At the end of September I’ve seen them abandon their individual chimneys in favour of group living as they congregate in large groups in a single chimney in preparation for their annual migration to South America. And finally, I made my last observation of a local chimney where a few days earlier I had counted 37 swifts entering. The chimney now stood empty.  Sad to see them go, but of course I wish them a swift journey south (they probably hear that one all the time) and I’m already looking forward to their return in April.


Bird Studies Canada has an excellent website with plenty of details about Chimney Swifts in general and also specific information on the SwiftWatch Program for anyone that would like to contribute data to help preserve these amazing birds.


This video from Nova Scotia posted on YouTube captures both the beauty and the awe Swifts can inspire. Just don’t expect to see quite so many on your first outing!






Photo’s Courtesy of Bird Studies Canada, Christian Artuso, Mark Bell, The Northern Hoot.

Mark Bell 2017






How do you know a film is making an impact?

How much do documentary films impact audiences?   How do you know in advance a film can make a difference?  The Messenger team set out with some ambitious goals early on. We wanted to tell the important environmental story about our beloved songbirds, but we also wanted to make a beautifully artistic film that would be captivating for audiences and stimulate discussion for many years to come.  We knew that to capture people’s hearts and minds the film had to be original and spellbinding in its approach, one that was worth going out to experience in theatres.  Because most documentaries take years of dedication and hard work  to produce  there has to be a compelling drive from within the production team to bring the ‘idea’ to fruition and then once the film is made there needs to be a desire and person-power to do the additional outreach and impact work.


Since THE MESSENGER made its World Premiere at the Hot Docs International Film Festival and was released theatrically in the USA, (Dec. 2015) then started touring across Canada in 2016, there have been lots of good reviews and positive feedback so we know we have met some of our goals.

Now we are asking ourselves –  has the film had the impact we want it to?   We are not sure yet.

We love it when we hear how other people have been inspired by our film to create other new artworks! 

Bridget Polei, a BFA Bridget PoleiBallet student at The University of Oklahoma (which has one of the top university ballet programs in the USA) wrote to tell us she was inspired after watching The Messenger on US Netflix to create and choreograph an original ballet set for 3 dancers. She says it combines the gracefulness of ballet and the beauty of birds to personify the struggles songbirds face as they migrate. Herbridget.P.showcase image. 16142777_1407396842612495_318272770793890310_n original dance set debuted in January as part of the Young Choreographers Showcase at the Elsie C. Brackett Theatre in Norman, Oklahoma.  Bridget says   “I loved all the beauty and inspiration the documentary brought to my artistic process.”


Some testimonials from screening hosts indicate the film is doing its job in awareness building of environmental issues.  Recently Hugh Powell, Science Editor for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Communications Dept. had this to say about a screening in Pittsfield,  MA where he moderated for the Mass. Audubon Society.     IMG_0650

“Just wanted to let you know that The Messenger had a very good reception last night in a nearly full auditorium with about 110 people in attendance. Listening to people’s reactions during the film, I heard a couple of gasps at the sight of all those birds in the 9/11 lights, a giggle at the first shot of the German DJ with his laptop in the stream, warm recognition of the White-throated Sparrow song and the Scarlet Tanager shot, a few wriggles of discomfort when the woman eats the Ortolan Bunting, and a chorus of appreciative laughs at the motmot’s tail ticking. At the end there was silence and then applause.” .

Hugh goes on to say the Q&A was lively and lasted for about 30 minutes.  ” People asked lots of questions about how the different sources of decline compare to each other in magnitude, what they could do to help stem the declines themselves, and a few perceptive questions about details that the film brought up (like why don’t Purple Martins just change their schedule at the same rate that climate is changing)”.

We have heard from people who knew nothing about birds that they feel differently about songbirds after they see it, and many have a greater appreciation for their role in the bio-diversity of the planet.  Conservation Groups have told us the film makes explaining their field work easier too.

At the time of writing this blog post,  THE MESSENGER  has played in over 210 theatres  in North America, including many screenings at regular cinemas.   It has been selected for numerous international film festivals and the film continues to be in demand for TUGG theatrical-on- demand and community event screenings.   People are also watching it at home via Netflix and iTunes in the USA and documentary channel and iTunes in Canada.

We expect UK and Australian Audiences will have access to see the film soon.

The Messenger will be having its Central American premiere at Cinema Planet in Mexico in May.


We believe THE MESSENGER is making an impact, and we know it has started an important conversation about what humans are doing to wildlife and birds.   Measuring  the real impact of a film is a slow and evolving process, so we are continuing to gather data. We hope you continue to talk about and share the film, in your community, on campus and in the schools. Together we can all make a difference.

If you have an impact story about our film to share, or The Messenger has inspired you to do something special, please get in touch.  We would love to hear from you!

Joanne Jackson, Producer of The Messenger.


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