At least one of the mysterious mass wildlife deaths of the past month has a (bizarre) explanation. The USDA acknowledged that hundreds of birds in South Dakota were poisoned as part of a massive and longstanding government bird-killing operation, normally kept under wraps, called Bye Bye Blackbird. The Christian Science Monitor sheds some light:
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.”