Bye Bye Blackbirds – Poison Program of the USDA

A few weeks ago, we wrote a post about the unusual mass die-offs of animals that have been occurring since the beginning of this year. While writing this post, we had to wade through a lot of strange stories to try and get to the truth, including a few conspiracy stories about how Vladimir Putin might be involved, and so on.

So when I saw a story with the headline, Bye Bye Blackbird: USDA Acknowledges a Hand in One Mass Bird Death, I didn’t take it too seriously. Yet this story, a repost of a Christian Science Monitor article on the Truthout website, turns out to be true. Evidently the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has taken responsibility for the death of hundreds of starlings, found frozen on the ground and in the trees in a park in Yankton, South Dakota, in late January. A farmer contracted the government to poison the starlings, that were causing problems in a cattle feedlot, eating the feed and leaving waste on both the feed and equipment.

It turns out that the USDA has been providing this service to farmers since the 1960s, in a program called Bye Bye Blackbird, using an avicide called DCR-1339 to kill the birds. In 2009 alone, according to the Christian Science Monitor article, USDA agents have euthanized more than 4 million red-winged blackbirds, starlings, cowbirds, and grackles. In addition to the USDA program,

…a so-called depredation order from the US Fish and Wildlife Service allows blackbirds, grackles, and starlings to be killed by anyone who says they pose health risks or cause economic damage. Though a permit is needed in some instances, the order is largely intended to cut through red tape for farmers, who often employ private contractors to kill the birds and do not need to report their bird culls to any authority.

I’m sure these birds are pests to farmers, and might pose a health risk if they gather near feedlots, but it seems like such an extreme measure to poison the birds, possibly introducing yet more toxins into the environment that might harm other local wildlife. I wasn’t able to find out much about DCR-1339, the chemical used, except that it has a “low toxicity” risk to other animals. That is has any toxicity risk at all to wildlife should concern people.

Animal Control—Without Poison

Are there other ways to protect the grain without killing the birds? I checked a Canadian pest control website, which offered lots of solutions to bird control, none of which involved poison. Here are just a few:


Netting is an excellent method of reducing bird roosting, nesting and feeding, which is not subject to bird acclimation (i.e. they can’t “get used to it”). It is economically feasible over life of netting; neighbors prefer it to other bird scaring methods.

Sound devices

Propane cannons, whistling or pyrotechnic pistols, predator mimicking sound generators can be effective for dispersing birds.

Visual scare devices

Streamers, flashtape, and scare-eye balloons are some of the devices that can be effective on some species and are cheap and relatively easy to install.

Flashing lights and mirrors

These are effective against starlings; solar powered units are available that require little maintenance besides frequent moving around.


This is an effective control if there is sustained activity in a large area. Birds of prey are not pets and require significant investment in time and training for falconers.  If hiring a service, a long-term commitment is necessary and can be expensive.

I found it interesting that this Canadian website included the following warning:

It is illegal to use poison and adhesives to kill, injure, or capture wildlife.

The U.S. government’s Bye Bye Blackbird poison program is a relic of another, less environmentally-friendly time. We hope the government will consider other, greener ways to help farmers deal with the bird problem.


Mysterious Animal Deaths of 2011

On New Year’s Eve, thousands of blackbirds plummeted to their death in a small town in Arkansas. Since then, several mysterious mass death of birds, fish, and crabs have been recorded worldwide. This string of animal die offs is being called Aflockalypse Now.

Dead devil crabs on the coast of Kent, England. Photo copyright Tony Sykes

Here are a few of the mysterious mass die offs of animals that have occurred in that past two weeks:


—40,000 Velvet swimming crabs, known as “devil crabs,” washed up along the Kent coast near Thanet, England.

—Two million small fish died in Chesapeake Bay, Maryland.

—Hundreds of snapper fish were found dead in Coromandel, New Zealand.

—100,000 dead or dying drum fish washed up along the Arkansas River.

—100 tons of fish washed up along the coast of Parangua, Brazil.

—Fish were also discovered rotting and floating in Port Orange, Florida.


—3,000 blackbirds fell on roofs and roads in the small town of Beebe, Arkansas.

—450 red-winged blackbirds, brown-headed cowbirds, grackles and starlings were found dead on a highway in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

—Scores of American Coots were found dead on Texas highways.

—50 dead  jackdaws were found on a street in Falkoping, Sweden.

—1,000 turtle doves fell dead in Italy.

Why Did These Animals Die?

According to wildlife biologists, animal die offs are pretty common, but they are usually not reported or they occur under the radar. In fact, on average over 160 of these types of die offs occur each year in the United States alone. But because of the media focus on the macabre New Year’s Eve blackbird deaths in Arkansas, there was widespread awareness and reporting of other animal deaths around the world.

Here are a few of the reasons that might account for the animals’ deaths:

Weather: Cold and wet weather, as in Arkansas on New Year’s Eve, is often associated with mass bird deaths. Cold snaps may have also been responsible for most of the fish deaths, as well as the mass death of the devil crabs.

Parasites, pollution, or disease may be responsible. The animals are being tested, but results are not expected for several weeks.

Some have blamed the birds’ deaths on fireworks. This didn’t ring true to me—why don’t we see scores of birds dying after the Fourth of July? But perhaps the fireworks combined with unusually cold or wet weather caused the birds to become disoriented.

Migration and magnetism, My first thought when I heard about the animals’ deaths was that it might have something to do with magnetism. Some scientists believe that  movement of Magnetic North Pole, which is shifting an average of around 25 miles a year, may have caused some of the animal die offs. Birds and fish rely on it to migrate to breeding grounds and warmer climates. But the shifting pole could be confusing the animals — they may not migrate in time to avoid cold weather.

Renowned Harvard biologist E.O Wilson in a Christian Scientist Monitor article noted that that mass die offs — usually of animals with large populations — are getting all the attention while a larger but slower mass extinction of thousands of species* because of human activity is ignored.

*Including frog species!

Note: Most of the information is this post is from an  article in The Mail Online (UK Daily Mail).