Deformed baby birds bring fears of pesticide pollution

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A pair of baby collared doves, each smaller than the length of a cotton bud, have become the latest in a sudden outbreak of deformed birds discovered by a wildlife sanctuary in Oxfordshire. The unprecedented increase in avian patients since the start of the year has left Penny Little of the Little Foxes sanctuary perplexed and alarmed.

A pair of baby collared doves, each smaller than the length of a cotton bud, have become the latest in a sudden outbreak of deformed birds discovered by a wildlife sanctuary in Oxfordshire. The unprecedented increase in avian patients since the start of the year has left Penny Little of the Little Foxes sanctuary perplexed and alarmed.

Yesterday she appealed for sanctuaries and animal hospitals all over the country to send word if they too had experienced a similar sudden influx of malformed birds. "You have to ask: is this a syndrome such as we haven't seen before?" said Ms Little, who is also a vigorous campaigner against fox-hunting.

Earlier this year she was asked to care for a young sparrow born "with only little tiny frills" instead of wings. "We think she is going to have to live in a cage permanently, and we'll have to give her as good a quality of life as possible."

Next came a baby woodpigeon less than half the size it should have been, which is still being hand-reared. And on Friday the doves were brought to Little Foxes, having been found when a tree was felled.

"They were in the nest, and there's no way of knowing how many other deformed birds are out there undiscovered," said Ms Little. "I don't have statistics, but it feels to me like something is going on. These are all seed-eating birds, so my initial conclusion would be that there is some form of pesticide pollution going on."

A spokesman for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds had not heard of any other cases, although it sometimes took a while for information to come through from the field. Heavy-metal pollution or a change in diet had been blamed for an increase in bone deficiency in herons, he said, and could theoretically cause deformity in other birds - although doves did not live in the same environment or eat the same foods. "We would not be able to make a judgement until we've looked at the individual cases," he said. Any investigation would be carried out by the British Trust for Ornithology or the Environment Agency.

The increased use of garden pesticides has been blamed by some for the decline in house sparrows, whose numbers have fallen by 64 per cent since 1972. Naturalists fear that pesticides may have greatly cut insect numbers, removing a vital source of food for birds.

Last month the RSPB launched a national survey of the state of the house sparrow. It followed a campaign by The Independent, which is offering a £5,000 prize to anyone who proves the reason why 9.6 million sparrows have been lost.

Theories include a form of suicidal depression, hunting by cats and magpies, and the Chernobyl disaster. As part of its survey of the countryside, the Government is carrying out a two-year programme of research into the decline of sparrows and starlings, whose numbers have also fallen.

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