Birds and Pesticides

Recent years have seen much controversy over the role that pesticides such as neonicotinoid insecticides, and herbicides such as glyphosate, may be playing in driving declines of insects. Evidence has emerged that they may also be implicated in declines of birds, either via direct toxicity or via depletion of populations of insect prey, and it is this that the project will investigate.



The aim of the research is to:


  1. Find out what pesticides birds are exposed to. We will quantify concentrations of pesticides in songbirds via feather samples, and also in blood and feathers from shot pheasants and partridge before and after the main crop drilling season in Autumn. Depending on what we find, subsequent investigations will attempt to identify the route of exposure.

  2. Quantify exposure of birds and small mammals to pesticides via their consumption of pesticide-coated seeds following drilling of crops (potentially a source of acute exposure since doses on seeds may be large). This will be explored using camera traps and direct observation.

  3. Model spatial and temporal patterns of population change in seed eating birds to see if they are predicted by patterns of pesticide use.

  4. Impacts of pesticides on birds may well be indirect; via depletion of their insect food. We will investigate this in a variety of ways, including population modelling, and by using garden bird count data to see whether domestic use of pesticides in the garden and on pets predicts populations of insectivorous birds.


The project will entail the analysis of trace residues of pesticides in environmental samples and also the collection and analysis of ecological data.  

The research team:

Prof Dave Goulson, University of Sussex

Studies the ecology, behaviour and conservation of bumblebees, with an interested in pollinators and pollination more generally, and particularly in the sustainable management of pollinators in agro-ecosystems. The research group uses a broad range of approaches, from genetic studies (of inbreeding, population structure, and as a means of estimating nest density) to behavioural assays to large-scale field trials.


PhD Students:
Cannelle Tassin de Montaigu

"Like a lot of children, I wanted to be a vet. But, one day, I saw a documentary about Jane Goodall and her relationship with wild chimpanzees, it completely changed my perspective on nature. I realised that I was not just interested in animals, but also in their behaviour, their physiology, how they evolved to be the ‘best version’ for their environment, and most importantly, how to protect wildlife.


I pursued a career in research early on, and through internships and volunteer projects, it confirmed my interests in conservation ecology and ecotoxicology.


My PhD project focuses on the impact of pesticides on wild birds. Artificial fertilisers and pesticides are some of the ways used to increase agricultural productivity. However, there are not without consequences on wildlife and ecosystems. The exposure and effects of those chemicals on birds are largely unknown, and this is the reason why, with funding from SongBird Survival and the University of Sussex, this project started.”

cannelle with robin.jpg
Priyesha Vijendra

“I thought the only way to pursue my interest in nature and the environment was to follow in the footsteps of (the much more charismatic) Sir David Attenborough. I'm enthusiastic and love wildlife, but it wasn’t until I took an ecology and conservation module during university that I realised the alternative possibilities of how I could follow this passion.

Priyesha with blue tit.jpg

My degrees and volunteering opportunities helped me understand how I can make a difference to the environment, which is why I chose to pursue a PhD. My project is funded by SongBird Survival and the University of Sussex and focuses on the impacts of pesticides on birds which are vital to ecosystem functionality.


Pesticides play a large role in the British agricultural landscape, yet it remains unknown the effects these have on birds; their behaviour, population and survival. This project is important to me because wildlife and the outdoors bring me and countless others joy. I am always amazed by birds – from the physiology and behaviour to birdsong. Protecting them has become important to who I am, and this project provides the opportunity to make a change and conserving our beloved birds.


During lockdown, many people have ventured outdoors or appreciated hearing birdsong. Something that has always bought a smile to my face, has bought happiness to many across the world during these difficult times. I hope that if this pandemic has taught us anything, it is the importance of wildlife to our existence.”