Red-winged Blackbird male singingAdult Red-winged Blackbird (Agelius phoeniceus) male singing, Pinellas County, FloridaNikon D200, handheld, f6.3, 1/640, ISO 250, Nikkor 80-400mm VR at 400mm, natural light

In December of 2010 and January of 2011 the national media outlets reported several mass die offs of birds in the United States. On December 31, 2010 over 5000 blackbirds died and fell on the town of Beebee, Arkansas. On January 4, 2011 near Labarre, Louisiana 500 blackbirds and starlings were reported dead.  It was reported that the mass die off in Arkansas was caused by illegal fireworks going off which startled the blackbirds into flying at night, smashing into objects because of their poor night vision.

Recently the USDA accepted responsibility for a smaller die off in South Dakota which brought to light a little known program called “Bye bye Blackbird” which uses DRC-1339, a poison that is also called an avicide. I didn’t see this program brought to national attention in the evening news.

European StarlingAdult European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) Salt Lake County, Utah – Nikon D200, f5.6, 1/1000, ISO 400, +0.3 EV, Nikkor 200-400mm with 1.4x TC at 260mm, natural light

Target species of the “Bye bye Blackbird” USDA Wildlife Services program are blackbirds, starlings, grackles, cowbirds, and pigeons.

A bit about European Starlings: Few people in North America like European Starlings, my thoughts on that are not to blame the bird but to place the blame where it belongs with the people who introduced this species in 1890 – 1891 in New York’s Central Park.

It only took 60 years for European starlings to make their way from the Atlantic coast all the way to the Pacific and a mere 100 birds has now been estimated at over 200 million. They do compete with native species for food and nesting cavities.

Brewer's Blackbird male displayingBrewer’s Blackbird (Euphagus cyanocephalus) male singing, Antelope Island State Park, Davis County, Utah – Nikon D200, f7.1, 1/350, ISO 400, -0.3 EV, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light

Of the blackbird target species there are Red-winged Blackbirds, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Brewer’s Blackbirds, the less common Tricolored Blackbird,  and the rare Rusty Blackbird. The depredation order is currently under review because of the impact it may have on the declining population of the Rusty Blackbird.

Brown-headed Cowbird maleBrown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) male,  Antelope Island State Park, Davis County, Utah – Nikon D200, f6.3, 1/640, ISO 250, +0.3 EV, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light

Cowbirds are also targeted by the Bye bye Blackbird program, there are 3 species which can be affected,  Brown-headed Cowbirds, Shiny Cowbirds and Bronzed Cowbirds. Brown-headed Cowbirds can be found throughout most of North America while the Shiny and Bronzed Cowbirds are more localized to certain geographical areas.

Great-tailed Grackle maleGreat-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus) male, Farmington Bay WMA, Davis County, Utah – Nikon D200, f7.1, 1/640, ISO 400, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light

There are three grackle species that are also targeted by the “Bye bye Blackbird” program, Common Grackles, Boat-tailed Grackles and Great-tailed Grackles. Common Grackles cover the largest geographical area, Great-tailed Grackles are found throughout the southwestern United States while Boat-tailed Grackles seem to prefer being along the east coast.

Yellow-headed Blackbird male singingAdult male Yellow-headed Blackbird (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus) male singing, Farmington Bay WMA, Davis County, Utah –  Nikon D200, f7.1, 1/800, ISO 400, +0.7 EV, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light

Why was the USDA Wildlife Services “Bye bye Blackbird” program started and when did it begin? It began in the 1960’s and became a part of the USDA later. The program was started to aid farmers, dairy farmers and ranchers in the reduction and removal of  avian “pests”. Dairy farmers say that a large flock of starlings or blackbirds can eat 200 pounds of feed a day and that their feces can spoil the feed.

Through the Wildlife Service there is a “depredation order” which allows anyone kill blackbirds, starlings or grackles who claims they pose health risks or economic damage. Some areas of the country require permits but farmers are often able to hire private contractors who don’t need to report their bird culls to any authority.

USDA agents killed more than 4 million starlings, blackbirds, grackles and cowbirds in 2009.

“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.”

I have to wonder:

* Why aren’t the farmers required to cover the feed they say is being lost daily or annually?
* Would the birds even be there if the feed was covered?
* Would the birds be defecating on the feed if the feed were covered?
* Why should this program to exterminate these species be paid for by the government?
* What are the effects on non-target species who eat seeds?
* What are the effects on raptors who may ingest the poisoned birds?
* What are the long-term effects of DRC-1339 on humans and the environment?
* How many other birds are dying because of DRC-1339 that we don’t know or hear about?

The USDA says that DRC-1339 does not affect livestock, pets or humans but they didn’t think that DDT would cause the well documented problems for birds that it did. How many times has the USDA or FDA said that a poison or medication wouldn’t be harmful only later to have to recant those statements because it was harmful?  How many government studies have been proven wrong?

From Known exceptions are owls and felines, with LD’s of about 5 mg/kg placing them in the sensitive category.

Last I checked felines included a well known family pet, the cat. And owls are protected.

DRC-1339 causes severe renal failure and congestion to the bird’s major organs, does that sound humane? I don’t think so.

What is next?

* If a Golden or Bald Eagle takes, kills and ingests a lamb or a calf will they be on the Bye bye Blackbird hit list too? They would be causing economic damage.
* Who is watching the private contractors to make sure they are “dosing” the target species safely if they don’t have to report to authorities?
* Why are the private contractors not required to report the number of birds (or species for that matter) to government authorities?

I’d hate to think that our great-grandchildren won’t ever know the sound of a Red-winged Blackbird singing on a spring morning. There needs to be more transparency & accountability about the “Bye bye Blackbird” program.

I’m really bothered by the USDA Wildlife Services Bye bye Blackbird program, are you?


Juvenile male Red-winged Blackbird singingJuvenile male Red-winged Blackbird (Agelius phoeniceus) singing, Pinellas County, Florida – Nikon D200, f6.3, 1/800, ISO 200, Nikkor 80-400mm at 400mm, natural light,F2400_P1001_PUB_MAIL_ID:1000,86850