We describe an ecotoxicological model that simulates the sublethal and lethal effects of chronic, low-level, chemical exposure on birds wintering in agricultural landscapes. Previous models estimating the impact on wildlife of chemicals used in agro-ecosystems typically have not included the variety of pathways, including both dermal and oral, by which individuals are exposed. The present model contains four submodels simulating (1) foraging behavior of individual birds, (2) chemical applications to crops, (3) transfers of chemicals among soil, insects, and small mammals, and (4) transfers of chemicals to birds via ingestion and dermal exposure. We demonstrate use of the model by simulating the impacts of a variety of commonly used herbicides, insecticides, growth regulators, and defoliants on western burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia hypugaea) that winter in agricultural landscapes in southern Texas, United States. The model generated reasonable movement patterns for each chemical through soil, water, insects, and rodents, as well as into the owl via consumption and dermal absorption. Sensitivity analysis suggested model predictions were sensitive to uncertainty associated with estimates of chemical half-lives in birds, soil, and prey, sensitive to parameters associated with estimating dermal exposure, and relatively insensitive to uncertainty associated with details of chemical application procedures (timing of application, amount of drift). Nonetheless, the general trends in chemical accumulations and the relative impacts of the various chemicals were robust to these parameter changes. Simulation results suggested that insecticides posed a greater potential risk to owls of both sublethal and lethal effects than do herbicides, defoliants, and growth regulators under crop scenarios typical of southern Texas, and that use of multiple indicators, or endpoints provided a more accurate assessment of risk due to agricultural chemical exposure. The model should prove useful in helping prioritize the chemicals and transfer pathways targeted in future studies and also, as these new data become available, in assessing the relative danger to other birds of exposure to different types of agricultural chemicals.
Additional publication details
Modelling effects of chemical exposure on birds wintering in agricultural landscapes: The western burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia hypugaea) as a case study