Mystery solved—kind of.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has admitted responsibility for the deaths of more than 300 birds in Yankton, South Dakota. At the same time, the agency insists it had nothing to do with other mass die-offs of tens of thousands of birds in a dozen states and in regions of the world as remote as Scandinavia.
The deaths in South Dakota were a result of a poison, DRC-1339, which the department’s Wildlife Services Program deliberately placed in a cattle feedlot in Nebraska, across the state border. The owners of the lot had complained that some 5,000 starlings had roosted and were eating and defecating on the feed (presumably in that order).
The use of the avicide is part of a little-publicized government bird-control program that began in the 1960s under the name of Bye Bye Blackbird. In 2009, the USDA euthanized more than 4 million red-winged blackbirds, starlings, cowbirds, and grackles. The government notes that the poison used is not harmful to pets or humans.
Apparently, the government is not the only entity in on the secret. Greg Butcher, Bird Conservation Director at the National Audubon Society, is quoted by the Christian Science Monitor as saying:
Every winter, there’s massive and purposeful kills of these blackbirds. These guys are professionals, and they don’t want to advertise their work. They like to work fast, efficiently, and out of sight.
In addition to Bye Bye Blackbird, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a standing “depredation” order that gives any citizen license to kill blackbirds, grackles, and starlings that pose a health risk or are causing economic damage. While a permit is needed in some cases, the order is largely intended to cut through red tape for farmers, who often employ private contractors to carry out the “bird hits.”
The depredation order recently came under review because its impact on the rare rusty blackbird, which is known to roost with more common species. Notes Director Butcher:
My biggest concern is we don’t know how many birds are being killed, and we don’t have a sense of how at risk the rusty blackbird is because of depredation events in their range.
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