Queen's University

50 years of bird poo links DDT with changing bird menus


New research findings highlight how deposits of animal droppings are scientifically important for determining the impact of environmental change on threatened species.

Analysis of 50 years’ bird droppings inside a large decommissioned chimney on Queen’s campus provided evidence that DDT and bird diet may have played a role in a long-term decline for populations of insect-eating birds in North America. The chimney had been a roosting spot for chimney 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!"

Researchers at Queen’s University Paleoecological Environmental Assessment and Research Lab (PEARL) developed a protocol for sampling the accumulation of droppings. They created a profile of the chimney swift guano deposit, then recruited experts to analyze different parts of the profile.

DDT use peaked at the same time there was a dramatic reduction in the abundance of beetles – insects especially susceptible to DDT – in the diet of swifts, according to analysis of the pile of droppings. This illustrates an impact of DDT that adds to its already infamous role in the thinning of eggshells.

 Chris Grooms (research technician for PEARL and Queen’s Department of Biology) discovered the deposit in the chimney. Other members of the research team include Joe Nocera (Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Trent University), Jules Blais and Linda Kimpe (University of Ottawa), David Beresford and Leah Finity (Trent University), Kurt Kyser, and Neal Michelutti (Queen’s University) and Matthew Reudink (Thompson Rivers University).  Funding for the research comes from NSERC and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources.

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

High resolution images are available from the authors.

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Last updated at 4:16 pm EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
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