The USDA’s War On Wild Birds

From USDA APHIS — shows concentration of poison in birds’ kidneys.

The existence of birds may be described, if somewhat poetically, as miraculous. From the lightness of hollow bones that aid in flight, to the astonishing variety of bird shapes and sizes, and the beauty of their varicolored plumage, birds are vertebrates of distinction in both an engineering and an aesthetic sense. And this is not even to mention the equally amazing flightless birds, such as penguins and ostriches, whose swimming and running abilities, respectively, are equally remarkable.

In all their wondrous variability, birds are undeniably fascinating individuals on many levels, and loved by humans the world over. On a practical note, they eat countless tons of insects every year – insects that would otherwise torment us humans in numerous ways, including by destroying crops we want to eat ourselves.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) does not, however, seem to have particularly benevolent feelings toward our avian friends, as is evident from their longstanding and widespread policy of mass slaughter of birds. One recent instance of large-scale bird poisoning by the USDA’s Wildlife Services attracted some media attention, but was merely the tip of the iceberg as regards large-scale bird killings by this taxpayer-funded government entity.

As reported by Mike Adams, Editor of Natural News, “Not all the mysterious bird die-offs that have been witnessed around the globe recently are due to unexplained causes. A recent mass die-off event witnessed in Yankton, South Dakota, was traced back to the USDA which admitted to carrying out a mass poisoning of the birds.”

Reuters news agency stated that the USDA was in this instance acting on behalf of a farmer who said the starlings were eating and contaminating his cattle feed. The USDA administered a poison known as DRC-1339 (active ingredient: 3-chloro-4-methylbenzenamine hydrochloride), which was eaten by the starlings. This poison is registered with the EPA for the control of blackbirds, cowbirds, grackles, and starlings.

“Lethal means are always a last resort,” said USDA Biologist Ricky Woods. “In this situation it’s what we had to do.”

This seems to be a common refrain of Wildlife Services.

Woods said most of the birds died near the site of the feed lot, but about 200 were strong enough to fly 10 miles north to Yankton, where they died and were found by local residents. He could not say how many birds died altogether. He said putting out poison is not common, but this statement is contradicted by the shockingly huge numbers of purposely poisoned birds posted on the USDA’s own website. We urge you to visit:

Woods also said that the poison would not harm an animal which ate one of the birds, such as a cat or a hawk. This was affirmed by another Wildlife Services officer at the USDA Washington, DC office, Jeff (did not want last name printed), who added that there is no soil contamination, and that the poison metabolizes in birds’ muscle tissue. It was, Jeff added, “a good thing about DRC-1339.”

Even if this were true, it would hardly be a comfort to the millions of bird-lovers, and even less to the birds themselves, who suffer and die from the poison. But there is reason to doubt the sanguine attitude of the USDA, in any case:

For one thing, there are widespread unintended deaths of other birds who eat the contaminated bait. This is unavoidable, given the freedom of movement of bird populations. “Collateral damage” is one drawback. Secondly, the dead birds can be found in such widespread areas – witness the longer-surviving starlings’ flight from Nebraska to South Dakota – thus, many predators who ingest the carrion are unlikely to be found and tested by authorities for any harmful effects. Thirdly, although DRC-1339 is supposed to degrade quickly in the sun’s UV rays, some animals, such as crows, often bury their food for consumption later; the contaminant is not exposed to sunlight when buried.

The Pesticide Action Network (North America) Pesticide Database lists DRC-1339 as a “bad actor chemical,” which classification includes it being a probable carcinogen, a known groundwater pollutant, and a known reproductive/ developmental toxin. Is this something we should be putting into the environment?

WHY DRC–1339?

DRC-1339 is considered to be relatively species specific, and fast acting, reliably causing death in 1 – 3 days. It is disturbing that one version of DRC-1339, called “Starlicide,” is manufactured by the venerable pet food company, Ralston Purina.

In one of numerous reports by USDA biologists, a clinical description of the toxic effects of DRC-1339 includes such phrases as, “The primary mode of action of DRC-1339 is irreversible necrosis of the kidney and a subsequent inability to excrete uric acid. Death occurs from uremia 24-72 hours from ingestion….” And, “very highly toxic to most pest birds but moderately-to-slightly toxic to raptors and most mammalian species.” During the pre-application period, when cruelly testing the efficacy of the poison, non-targeted birds such as Canada geese, mourning doves, sparrows, and meadowlarks were tested for susceptibility to DRC-1339. They were held captive and some fed with treated food, some with untreated food, and their reactions noted. Birds that survived the test were later “euthanized.”

At least one other US government department, the USGS/Department of the Interior, recognizes the danger of this poison, “DRC-1339 is a chemical of national concern……” They add that there is a “potential loss of non-target migratory birds to DRC-1339.” Yet, USGS has not taken any action against it:.

We also checked with Canada’s federal health department, Health Canada. Their Pest Management Regulatory Agency does not authorize the use of pesticides that contain the active ingredients in DRC-1339.

The PRMA puts the burden of proof that ingredients are not toxic to the environment on the companies who try to register product use in Canada, and DRC-1339 did not meet this requirement.


Wildlife Watch has long known of Wildlife Services’ lethal approach to wildlife “management,” involving many animal species. After the aforementioned mass poisoning of starlings in Nebraska, we investigated the USDA’s general policy.

According to the mission statement of the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS)Wildlife Services, they aim “to provide Federal leadership and expertise to resolve wildlife conflicts to allow people and wildlife to co-exist.”

APHIS says that their biologists apply an “integrated approach” to public requests for assistance with “nuisance animals.” They use a variety of methods to dissuade birds and other animals from doing things harmful to human health and safety – such as defecating in feed lots or on benches and statues in public parks, or nesting near airport runways. Some methods listed on the USDA website to reduce wildlife damage are habitat management, animal husbandry techniques, herders, night penning, shifting breeding schedules, guard animals, re-locating and rotating crops, using damage-resistant crops, and human behavior modification, e.g., “eliminate wildlife feeding and handling, and calm irrational fears of people towards wildlife.”

Nevertheless, on the APHIS Wildlife Damage Management web page, the Program Data Report reveals an alarming propensity to take the lives of wild birds, among other animals. Listed by species, by method of death, and by the state in which they were killed, the numbers are staggering, covering 745 pages (2009 report) and including many bird species. “Unintentional” deaths are also listed, when non-targeted birds are killed.

If we focus on just one bird species as an example – European starlings – and on just one method of poisoning (DRC-1339), in 2009 alone, the raw data is horrific: 4500 starlings killed in Minnesota, 181 in Nebraska, 4,028 in Wisconsin, 1,500 in Nevada, 16,468 in Wyoming, 372,900 in Washington, 28,633 in Vermont, 16,109 in Utah, 76,000 in South Dakota, 19,904 in Colorado, 18,260 in Iowa, 7,745 in California, 10,100 in Connecticut, 65,300 in Idaho, 18,676 in Illinois, 1816 in Indiana, 4000 in Massachusetts, 6,937 in Ohio, 12,020 in Maine, 100,094 in New York, 77,517 in Pennsylvania, 2,250 in Texas, and 217,649 in Michigan.

To get an idea of the enormity of this crime against nature, one has to note that this is only a subset of a subset. These are only figures for the poisoning of starlings related to feedlot contamination; and only those feedlot-related poisonings wherein the delivery method of DRC-1339 was via meat as bait.

In any event, neither the USDA nor any private poisoner can ever be sure of the long-term and far-ranging effect of their lethal methods. Air, water, and soil, as well as numerous species – including humans – may all be affected in ways that are unknown far into the future.


Eileen Fay has been an environmental reporter for over twenty years. She is Associate Editor and investigative reporter for the Wildlife Watch Binocular and C.A.S.H. Courier.


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