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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.

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"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," says Mr. Butcher.

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Yankton animal control officer Lisa Brasel told KTIV-TV that she first believed a cold snap had killed some 200 European starlings that were found dead in Riverside Park, reminding some residents of the final scenes of Alfred Hitchcock's thriller, "The Birds."

But then she said she received a call from a USDA official who said the agency had poisoned a roost of starlings 10 miles south of Yankton. Usually such poisonings result in flocks falling directly out of their tree roosts. But in this case, the birds traveled a fair distance before falling. "They were surprised they came to Yankton like they did and died in our park," said Brasel, according to KTIV-TV.

How birds plague farmers

Carol Bannerman, a Wildlife Services spokeswoman, said such kills are carried out at the request of farmers who can prove the birds are a nuisance. The farmers also help pay the cost, according to the agency.

One example of nuisance birds are European starlings, a non-native species, at US dairies, where a flock of 5,000 can eat 200 pounds of feed a day while soiling equipment and dairy cows.

"It's not that we have anything against starlings, but our charge is to help protect agriculture ... and protect property and human health or safety," she says. "And the fact is, in a lot of rural settings, people say, 'It's just birds, what's the problem?' "

Ms. Bannerman added, however, that the agency takes care to notify local public-health and law-enforcement agencies before a scheduled kill, and noted "what went on in Louisiana and Arkansas, that was totally outside of what we're doing. We're quite concerned that people not connect those."

Two mass bird deaths in north Alabama this week are being investigated, with specimens being tested for toxicity. Two other mass bird deaths in Gilbertville and Murray, Ky., earlier this month were not linked to poison, but could have been caused by unseasonably cold weather. The most widely reported recent mass bird deaths – in Louisiana and Arkansas – have been tied to birds en masse flying into buildings and power lines.

Rogue fireworks in Arkansas

In Arkansas, state ornithologist Karen Rowe has reviewed ground radar records that show a 20,000-plus bird roost taking flight at approximately 10:15 p.m. on New Year's Eve, 15 minutes after a series of large booms shook the windows of houses in a nearby subdivision.

This has caused state wildlife officials to pin the blame on a resident who may have gotten a hold of professional-grade fireworks. The dead birds were likely animals that were trying to land in the dark and hit some kind of object after being drawn to toward the artificial light of the neighborhood.

"So far, no one has confessed to letting off the fireworks, but the question remains if anyone would admit to it," says Ms. Rowe. They needn't fear retribution. Despite the number of birds that died, no laws were broken.

Some 5 billion birds die every year across the US, most largely unnoticed. Mass deaths are not uncommon. The US Geological Service's website listed about 90 mass deaths of birds and other wildlife in the last six months of 2010.

"Whether people are noticing it more and pointing it out more this year than in the past, is something that I'd be thinking about," says Bannerman at the USDA.

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