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Valley birds being harmed by rat poison, experts suggest alternatives

Posted at 5:39 PM, May 02, 2018
and last updated 2018-05-03 10:01:54-04

A strategy many use to rid pests from their homes is having a devastating effect on our predators of the sky. 

“This is the Great Horned Owl that was submitted to us yesterday,” said Anne Justice-Allen of the Arizona Game and Fish Department, as she carries a black trash bag from an industrial-size freezer. 

From that trash bag, she pulls out the body of a juvenile Great Horned Owl. Justice-Allen is hoping to get some answers on what killed the bird. 

“One of the things we try and determine is whether or not there’s any sign of injury; this bird doesn’t have any sign of real injury at all,” Justice-Allen said. “We look to see if they have any fractures that may have caused hemorrhaging and caused their death but again, we aren’t seeing any with this bird, so we know he wasn’t hit by a car or something like that.”

Over the last several years, 42 raptors have been found dead -- their causes of death were mysterious at first but becoming more clear every day. 

“Everything from eagles to various hawk species, a number of owls,” Justice-Allen said, who has performed examinations on the birds. 

In fact, over the last week, this is the second Great Horned Owl suspected to have died from exposure to rodenticide, a popular poison used to exterminate rats, mice, and other rodents around homes. 

“Currently we have more than 30 cases pending that we’re submitting for testing and we believe more than half will come back as exposure to rodenticide,” Justice-Allen said. 

The signs of the poisoning are only visible after necropsy. 

“Inside of them when we take a look, we’re almost certain that it’s rodenticide when we see a lot of internal bleeding,” Justice-Allen said. 

Bob Fox with Wild at Heartsays it’s a problem caused by the natural cycle of predatory life. 

“Rats that consume the rat poison are lethargic, they’re out, they’re easy makes it very accessible for wildlife to eat them,” Fox said. 

Treating them is nearly impossible, and many times it not only kills one bird but a whole generation. 

“Adults will bring back the poisoned rats to the nest,” Justice-Allen said.

Restrictions have been put in place to reign in the use of rodenticides but enforcing it is difficult. 

“In 2015, the EPA put on the restricted list a number of what we call second generation rodenticides, these are rodenticides that are particularly persistent and potent,” Justice-Allen said. 

“By restricting those rodenticides, the thought from EPA was that they would be able to reduce the potential of rodenticide poisoning in our raptors and other wildlife, and clearly that has not occurred.”

The move looked to stop those rodenticides from being sold by retailers and only put them in the hands of certified pest-control applicators. However, it didn’t require retailers to remove what was left on the shelves. 

“So who knows how much of that remained in stock and in warehouses,” Justice-Allen said. “We’ve also seen cases where certified applicators are still using these products.”

"These birds are our greatest exterminator. One owl can get rid of thousands of pesky rodents in its lifetime," Fox said. "When you kill one rat that causes the death of one owl, the return on investment just isn't there,"

Fox and Justice-Allen both agree change now rests in the hands of the public.

“Try and find another way to remove roof rats and problem rodent species,” Justice-Allen said. 

Experts say the next time you hire a pest control company, ask about live traps, snap traps, botanicals and other alternatives to rodenticide as there are many ways to rid yourself of the rodents without taking the lives of Arizona’s native predators.