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Slaughter of Swainson's Hawks Averted

Bird On! Abstract
11th November 1996

(From a press release from the American Bird Conservancy)

Every year, as they have for hundreds of years, the world's 400,000 Swainson's Hawks begin their fall migration from North America to Argentina. Nearly the entire North American population of Swainson's Hawks winters in Argentina. In huge flocks, they arrive to feast upon grasshoppers and other insects.

But their natural diet has turned deadly. In January, 1995, Brian Woodbridge of the U.S. Forest Service discovered 700 dead Swainson's Hawks dead under a large roost site in La Pampa, Argentina. The following fall, a group of researchers covering the area estimated the kill at close to 20,000 dead Swainson's Hawks and through autopsies discovered the primary culprit - the pesticide monocrotophos.

Monocrotophos was being applied to alfalfa and sunflower fields to control grasshoppers. According to Pierre Mineau, an expert toxicologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service,

"Based on the information we have reviewed, monocrotophos appears to be unsafe to birds at any of the rates currently recommended in Agriculture. Ciba has indicated that they have more information on this product--the onus is clearly on them to demonstrate product safety."
Other toxicologists agree and have called monocrotophos an extremely hot pesticide that is one of the most, if not the most, acutely toxic pesticide to birds. Without immediate action, Swainson's Hawks' were headed for the Endangered Species List.

This fall, through an unprecedented collaborative effort on the part of conservationists, industry, and the governments of the United States, Canada, and Argentina, Swainson's Hawks will be welcomed back to a friendlier, safer, environment in their wintering grounds in Argentina. In anticipation of the hawks' annual migration south, the American Bird Conservancy's Policy Council (composed of 56 member conservation organizations), spearheaded an international movement to remove the pesticide monocrotophos from the wintering habitat of Swainson's hawks and to influence Argentinean farmers to use farming techniques friendlier to the environment.

A meeting was held with a major producer of monocrotophos, Ciba-Geigy, on August 26th in Washington, to discuss actions to safeguard the hawks this fall. Representatives from the American Bird Conservancy, Canadian Wildlife Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, World Wildlife Fund, Environmental Defense Fund, Defenders of Wildlife, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Wildlife Federation, The Institute of Wildlife and Environmental Toxicology at Clemson, and Ciba-Geigy representatives from Switzerland and Argentina met and hammered out a plan to prevent further Swainson's Hawks kills as well as broader issues in reporting wildlife kills from pesticides. A formal agreement has been reached in which Ciba-Geigy agreed to remove monocrotophos from the market in areas where the Swainson's Hawks winter, to buy back existing stocks of monocrotophos, to add warning labels to containers that indicate monocrotophos is prohibited for use on grasshoppers or alfalfa fields, and to initiate a pesticide education campaign through television, radio and posters. Ciba also requested a follow-up meeting in December to continue discussing how to work together to eliminate wildlife loss from misapplied or "hot" pesticides globally.

Klaus von Grebmer of Ciba-Geigy in Switzerland stated

"We at Ciba take environmental stewardship very seriously. We are pleased to work with the international bird conservation community to protect Swainson's Hawks from future losses in Argentina. We look forward to working with the international conservation community on developing mechanisms for reporting pesticide kills and responding to them in a timely fashion."

Gerald Winegrad, ABC Director of Government Relations, stated

"By addressing the problem of pesticide poisoning of Swainson's Hawks now, I feel we may have saved Swainson's Hawks from eventually becoming listed as endangered or threatened in the U.S., and saved taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars it would have cost to recover the species had it become listed."

Prior to the meeting with Ciba, ABC also arranged meetings with Agricultural specialists at the Argentinean Embassy in the U.S. to urge restrictions on the use of monocrotophos in Argentina. Through BirdLife International, the Asociacion Ornitologica del Plata (AOP), a local Argentinean conservation group, was contacted and has taken responsibility for sending biologists into the field to educate the farmers about the effects of monocrotophos, and to suggest safer pesticides and alternative pest management techniques. This fall, AOP will have members monitor the return of the hawks and success of the measures taken to protect them.

"It's great to have the opportunity to actually find a problem, and be able to fix it before a species becomes endangered, " enthused John Perrine of Defenders of Wildlife. "There is no question the pesticide poisonings were taking a tremendous toll on the Swainson's Hawks."

The pesticide working group will meet in December at ABC headquarters in Washington to continue discussions with Ciba on the Swainson's Hawk, monocrotophos use and the establishment of an international pesticide incident reporting system.

American Bird Conservancy
1250 24th Street NW, Suite 220 Washington, DC 20037

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