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Bye Bye Blackbird: USDA acknowledges a hand in one mass bird death

One in a series of mysterious mass bird deaths in the past month was the product of a USDA avicide program, which began as operation Bye Bye Blackbird in the 1960s.

By Staff writer / January 20, 2010

A worker with US Environmental Services, a private contractor, picks up a dead bird in Beebe, Ark. on Jan. 1. The USDA said it killed hundreds of starlings in South Dakota this week.

Warren Watkins/The Daily Citizen/AP/File

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Atlanta

It's not the "aflockalyptic" fallout from a secret US weapon lab as some have theorized. But the government acknowledged Thursday that it had a hand in one of a string of mysterious mass bird deaths that have spooked residents in Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, South Dakota, and Kentucky in the last month.

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The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) took responsibility for hundreds of dead starlings that were found on the ground and frozen in trees in a Yankton, S.D., park on Monday.

The USDA's Wildlife Services Program, which contracts with farmers for bird control, said it used an avicide poison called DRC-1339 to cull a roost of 5,000 birds that were defecating on a farmer's cattle feed across the state line in Nebraska. But officials said the agency had nothing to do with large and dense recent bird kills in Arkansas and Louisiana.

Nevertheless, the USDA's role in the South Dakota bird deaths puts a focus on a little-known government bird-control program that began in the 1960s under the name of Bye Bye Blackbird, which eventually became part of the USDA and was housed in the late '60s at a NASA facility. In 2009, USDA agents euthanized more than 4 million red-winged blackbirds, starlings, cowbirds, and grackles, primarily using pesticides that the government says are not harmful to pets or humans.

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.

"Every winter, there's massive and purposeful kills of these blackbirds," says Greg Butcher, the bird conservation director at the National Audubon Society. "These guys are professionals, and they don't want to advertise their work. They like to work fast, efficiently, and out of sight."

Bird kills turning too zealous?

The depredation order, however, is under review for its impact on the rare rusty blackbird, which roosts with more common species. Ornithologists also suspect that the mass killings may be a factor in declining populations of those species in the US.

While the USDA keeps tabs on the number of birds the program euthanizes, the total death toll isn't known because private contractors operating under the depredation order aren't required to keep count in the case of blackbirds, cowbirds, grackles, and starlings.

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