Birds falling from the sky dead in mass quantities seem to be the hot button story of 2011. Each time I meet up with friends who are non birders or even somewhat aware of birds, they ask me, “What’s with all the dead birds?”
Every time I think the story has gone the way of all things hot to talk about and reference on the Internet another dead bird story pops up. Last week it was the story that 200 some odd European Starlings turned up dead in Yankton, South Dakota. I was surprised that a non native species that usually draws the ire of bird feeding enthusiasts, Purple Martin landlords and bluebird trail monitors was garnering attention. Others were far more shocked to learn that the birds were poisoned by the United States Department of Agriculture. Believe it or not, many birds are poisoned every year by the USDA. In 2009, the USDA poisoned over 4 million red-winged blackbirds, starlings, cowbirds and grackles (wonder if there were any Rusty Blackbirds in those flocks).
Generally, birds like starlings or the above Red-winged Blackbird show up in huge flocks in agricultural areas, farmers have several options in dealing with them. Some non-lethal and others undoubtedly lethal. It can be understandable when it’s to keep the flocks of hundreds or thousands of from defecating in cattle feed or from destroying a whole field of crops. Where this can get very weird is when blackbirds are killed to keep them from eating sunflower seed. There was a USDA plan some bloggers like Mike McDowell were angry about that entailed poisoning 6 million blackbirds over the course of 3 years because the blackbirds were “raiding” (or translation, native birds feeding on an available food source): sunflower feeds.
Black oil sunflower is the key ingredient in a “good all purpose” bird feeding mix. There’s big money in sunflower, not only for bird feeders, but also for cooking oils. A big increase in the price of this popular feeder seed that came about in the early 2000s when Frito Lay switched to using sunflower oil for all of their chips, taking a larger share of the sunflower on the market, leaving less available for use in bird feeding mixes. But is bird feeding worth it when blackbirds are killed so they won’t eat it on their migratory routes?
You can read more about the USDA plans for blackbird and starling relief on their website. Not all “Blackbird Management Strategies” involve poison, some of it involves non lethal methods like air cannons, scaring the flocks of blackbirds with low flying planes and removal of cattail wetlands.