5 September 2013
Prolog: North American bird populations have been in continuous decline for decades. These population losses are shared by all species of birds — both “common” and “endangered.” A National Audubon Society report, “Common Birds in Decline,” documents that there has been as much as an 80% decline in populations of many “secure” species. In spite of endless speculation, the cause of these declines remains a mystery. However, some declines are less mysterious than others. 
Let’s pick up this story in the middle. Just minutes before New Years, on December 31, 2010, birds began to drop dead out of the sky in Beebee, Arkansas. Hours after dark, hundreds of Red Winged Blackbirds suddenly flew out of trees and brush and into the air. No sooner were they airborne, than they tumbled back down to the ground dead. In the morning, thousands of dead birds were found everywhere. A major clean-up operation was required.
No one knew the cause. The poor night vision of this variety of blackbird makes nocturnal flight extremely rare. Some had speculated that fireworks had frightened the birds from their roost, but the county vet was doubtful. Some blamed the frequency of thunderstorms during the previous week, but the last thunderstorm had ended days earlier. Others remembered the death of a flock of ducks that had fallen to the ground dead near Hot Springs in 2001. Those deaths were attributed to a lighting strike or, possibly, hail. But, again, there had been no storm during the last flight of Beebee’s blackbirds. 
During the following week, “Several hundred dead birds” were found near Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky. The birds were “scattered around” several city blocks. “No one could determine the cause of death,” but speculation was that “[i]t could be something in the weather.” 
As the news spread, one woman, living in Marshall County, Kentucky, came forward to report that she had found dozens of dead birds on her property throughout that same Christmas season. 
Then, on January 5, 2011, just days after the mass bird deaths in Arkansas, 500 birds were found dead on a Louisiana highway. The location was only about 300 miles away from Beebee. The dead birds were of three species: blackbirds, starlings, and sparrows. Louisiana officials believed the birds fell to their deaths after “flying into a power line.” However, the reason why 500 birds would engage in this amazingly precise flying maneuver was “still a mystery.” 
Although no one immediately concluded that the weather was to blame, soon a thunderstorm was discussed as a possible cause. Again, however, the last thunderstorm had ended days before these birds’ last flight. With the timing of the thunderstorm so far off the mark, attention turned to a rare weather phenomenon that could suck birds into the air, hold them and, then, drop the birds, in mass, at a particular location.  The 2001 deaths of the Hot Springs ducks made another appearance in media reports to illustrate weather-related bird deaths.
Pathologists all agreed that trauma was the cause of death — a broken breastbone. In other words, the birds died from the impact as they hit the ground. However, the reason why the birds fell out of the sky and hit the ground could not be determined.
Stress was placed on the toxicology report. These blackbirds, starlings, and sparrows hadn’t been poisoned. However, it’s not clear whether pathologists checked for an unusual and expensive poison like DRC-1339, which affects only a small group of bird species. This poison metabolizes quickly in a bird’s system so that insects and animals that scavenge the dead bird would not be affected. DRC-1339 is marketed under the commercial name that says it all: Starlicide. 
After all those stories about the “mysterious” decline in North American bird populations, it turns out that at least one factor is about as mysterious as the decline in insect populations after a visit by the exterminator.
This story ends in Yankton Riverside Park in the City of Yankton, South Dakota, on the morning of January 18, 2011 — just 18 days after the first mass death in Beebee, Arkansas. Residents were puzzled and alarmed to find hundreds of dead birds in the park. The event received substantial publicity and a police investigation began. 
Like the reports of other bird die-offs over the past weeks, this latest mass death remained unexplained. Accounts of the mysterious deaths were repeated by mystified naturalists. Environmentalists were sure that some enjoyable aspect of modern life was responsible and, of course, should be stopped. Those with an apocalyptic streak even worried that these mass bird deaths were a sign of the end of world.
Then, the United States Department of Agriculture contacted the Yankton Police. The USDA representative explained that the Department of Agriculture had poisoned the birds at a location south of Yankton — adding, pleasantly, that they were surprised the birds made it as far north as Yankton before dying. 
This story begins with a Nebraska farmer. We’ll call him Farmer Jones. He complained to the USDA that starlings were defecating in his feed meal. The USDA investigated and concluded that the birds were causing “agricultural damage.” Also, feed meal contaminated with bird poop was “a threat to human health.”
This confronted the USDA with a difficult decision. They had to find the most humane, economical, and least disruptive means of dealing with the problem. On the one hand, they could provide Farmer Jones with a cover for his feed meal. On the other hand, they could obtain a deadly poison and begin a program of mass bird extermination. Weighing all the factors, it was apparent that mass bird extermination was the only possible solution.
Quickly consulting their staff experts, the USDA obtained large quantities of DRC-1339, a deadly poison called Starlicide, and began the implementation of their new program. Thousands of birds were allowed to feed on the poison and die. But the USDA felt this should be the start of something really big. They made it so.
With amazing efficiency, and certainly great expense, the USDA had fatally poisoned over 4 million birds by the time of the Yankton Park die-off. This was no idle boast. These numbers were, and are, documented on the USDA website. Better yet, the USDA has a name for the program. It’s called “Bye Bye Blackbird.” 
This program of systematic poisoning is costing taxpayers a lot of money and bird lovers a lot of grief. Black birds, starlings, farmers, and feed meal have been living together since — about forever. Call me crazy, but wouldn’t it have been cheaper and more merciful to buy Farmer Jones a cover for his feed meal?
Epilog: The residents of Beebee, Arkansas didn’t hold a memorial on the first anniversary of the mass bird deaths of 2010. They didn’t need to be reminded because it happened again.
On December 31, 2011, Beebee’s police dispatcher began to receive multiple calls reporting, that “blackbirds [were] falling again and that [people] found blackbirds on the streets where they live or at [their] churches,” A spokesperson for Animal Control reported that there were “birds falling down on the street and people dodging and missing them.” A Police spokesperson later explained that this second die-off wasn’t as bad as the previous year “when birds covered the streets.” At least this year, the clean-up would be easier because the dead birds were scattered over a smaller area.
Initial suspicion, again, fell on fireworks with news reports confirming that fireworks had caused a similar event the previous year. Even an unnamed expert expressed the opinion that the many blackbirds flew into the air and crashed down to their deaths because they were scared by fireworks. 
However, the fireworks explanation faded away as later news reports refocused on the weather. Although there had been no thunderstorms at the time of this latest death flight, there had been thunderstorms days earlier. And, of course, the reporters remembered those ducks that were struck by lightening in Hot Springs in 2001.
M Grossmann of Hazelwood, Missouri
& Belleville, Illinois