DEAR READERS: People across the U.S. are currently suffering the health effects of smoke from forest fires, not all of which are caused by climate change. The widespread use of pesticides has decimated insect-eating animals and birds that help protect the forests from invasive tree-killing beetles. Without that protection, beetles destroy the trees, which then become a fire hazard.
Per the U.S. Forest Service (fs.usda.gov), "Recent outbreaks of the mountain pine beetle, spruce beetle and Douglas fir beetle have caused the loss of millions of acres of conifer forests in many Western states." The loss of forest habitat is having a devastating effect on bird populations, especially aerial insectivores, whose prey includes bugs that can transmit diseases to humans and other animals including dengue, chikungunya, the Zika virus, malaria (now resurging in the U.S.) and West Nile virus.
More details from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (fws.gov): "Among the dramatic declines observed in birds, aerial insectivores have shown the highest percentage of species in decline of any taxonomic group: 73% of species are in decline, representing a loss of 156.8 million birds. Aerial insectivores are a guild of land birds grouped by their foraging behavior of primarily capturing insect prey in flight. They include species of swifts, swallows, martins, nightjars and flycatchers, who play an important role in ecosystems and can, along with bats, help reduce pest insect populations in agricultural and urban areas."
FWS has provided a list of ways concerned citizens can help. Actions include planting oak trees -- "Oaks support a greater diversity of insects than any other tree in general," says FWS; reducing the use of pesticides -- instead, "join a local CSA or grow your own organic veggies"; and mowing and raking your lawn less often -- "The insects (and birds) in your yard will thank you!" See the full list at fws.gov/library/collections/aerial-insectivores.
I urge all readers to consider sending a donation to support the good work of the nonprofit organization the American Bird Conservancy (abcbirds.org) to help save birds and their habitats at home and abroad.
It is notable that the mental health benefits of hearing birds singing has been evaluated and confirmed by scientists, as per the reports at nature.com/articles/s41598-022-20841-0 and nature.com/articles/s41598-022-20207-6.
DEAR DR. FOX: I appreciate your frequent comments about the risks of anti-flea and tick products on our pets. I walk our two dogs on the trails where we live, and do not let them run free in the tall grasses and woods around our area. Leash laws have an additional benefit of reducing dogs' likelihood of picking up ticks, which are a real health issue everywhere, it seems. I wish you would emphasize this in your column and give us more details about safer alternatives. -- R.E., Washington, D.C.
DEAR R.E.: I am not the only voice in the U.S. veterinary community sounding the alarm over the widely marketed insecticides, notably imidacloprid and fipronil, being put on companion animals to ward off fleas and ticks. See Dr. Karen Becker's excellent post at barkandwhiskers.com/flea-and-tick-treatments.
These insecticides are a significant animal health and environmental hazard, and there are safer alternatives all can use. I like Alzoo's flea and tick spray, containing cedar and peppermint oils, which I spritz on our dog and myself before going outdoors (alzoo-vet.com). I also like the Herbal Bug Spray and the Skin Defense Chews, both from Nature's Protection (available at earthanimal.com). The chews contain a combination of vitamins, minerals and medicinal herbs that help maintain healthy skin and repel fleas, ticks and biting insects. (For details, see my post at drfoxonehealth.com/post/preventing-fleas-ticks-and-mosquitoes.)
With climate change extending the breeding period for biting insects, and in many regions, more moisture facilitating their multiplication, vigilance and effective repellents are called for. The overuse of insecticides that contaminate the environment will eventually lead to some insects becoming resistant -- and beneficial insects becoming extinct. Birds, bats and other insectivores are the natural insect controls, and they are being poisoned or starved to death.
(Send all mail to email@example.com or to Dr. Michael Fox in care of Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns.
Visit Dr. Fox’s website at DrFoxOneHealth.com.)