Black Bird Deaths and A Fish Kill: Who Did It?

Three weeks ago, the mainstream media went into overdrive attempting to explain the cause of two mass bird deaths and a large fish kill.  Absurd theories abounded in newspapers, magazines, and on television.  State wildlife officials in Arkansas and Louisiana (where the birds fell dead from the sky) only added to the confusion and speculation.  Keith Stephens, a representative from the the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, asserted that the 5,000 Red-winged blackbirds found dead at Beebe, Arkansas, may have all died in one huge collective heart attack during a New Year’s Eve fireworks display.  According to Stephens, fireworks exploded somewhere in Arkansas (he did not specify where), the birds became frightened, and then 5,000 of them suffered a simultaneous, mid-air cardiac arrest, after which they all fell stone dead to the ground. Even the more reputable “Christian Science Monitor” claimed that a cold snap may have killed the birds.  But the temperature at Beebe, according to the Weather Channel, reached 71 Fahrenheit on December 31, 2010, and 52 Fahrenheit on January 1, 2011.  The birds reportedly died either late on December 31 or early on January 1.  Those temperatures indicate that the Beebe area did not experience a cold snap during the time of the birds’ deaths.  Superstitious web bloggers claimed the birds’ deaths indicated Gaia’s or God’s displeasure with humanity.  Some individuals went so far as to postulate that the mass bird die-offs meant the end of times.  None of the theories put forth to date hold any merit.  I want to put forward a theory that I believe explains the bird deaths and the fish kill.

On January 17-18, 2011, 300 dead European starlings turned up in the small southeast South Dakota town of Yankton.  Local officials initially concluded that the birds died because they failed to make their annual migration south soon enough.  In other words, they were caught in a cold snap and perished in it.  That theory made the rounds until the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service based in Lincoln, Nebraska, announced that the birds had been deliberately poisoned by the department’s Wildlife Damage Management team.  According to Ricky Woods of the USDA, the department had poisoned the birds at a cattle feedlot located ten miles from Yankton on the Nebraska side of the Missouri River.  The birds managed to fly to Yankton before succumbing to the poison.  Woods stated that the USDA poisoned the starlings because they consumed cattle feed and their defecating at the feedlot threatened the health of humans and cattle alike.  The birds had to go.  The starlings cost the feedlot owner money.

What may surprise many Americans is that the USDA has carried out mass bird killings for years.  The USDA keeps the program hush-hush for fear of a public backlash.  The extermination program’s macabre name is apparently “Bye Bye Blackbird.”  The program’s purpose is to eliminate birds that impinge upon agricultural production.  A key target of “Bye Bye Blackbird” has been the birds that move into feedlots during the winter months and eat the corn meal fed to cattle.  The USDA specifically targets for death the European starling, Red-winged blackbird, Common grackle, Brown-headed cowbird, and Brewer’s blackbird.  These birds move into feedlots when their non-agricultural forage sources become depleted or inaccessible under snow cover.  To kill the birds, the USDA employs a poison known as DRC 1339.  In the mid-1960s, the U.S. government and Purina collaboratively developed DRC 1339.

The USDA notes on its official website the dangers inherent in the use of DRC 1339.  It states, “This product is very highly toxic to birds and aquatic invertebrates.  Do not use in any manner that may endanger desirable and protected bird species.  Runoff may be hazardous to aquatic organisms in neighboring areas.”  Run-off is particularly severe at feedlots, where the barren, trampled soil allows rainwater to quickly pass into nearby streams and rivers.  The USDA website explains further that DRC 1339 has “High acute toxicity to nontarget birds and aquatic invertebrates.”  Finally, the USDA warns that human contact with DRC 1339 can be fatal. It will kill humans if inhaled or consumed.  DRC 1339 is not to be taken lightly.  The USDA explains that DRC 1339 disrupts the liver and kidney functions of poisoned birds, resulting in death in from one to three days after consumption of the poison.  Consequently, the birds can travel far from the location of their initial poisoning to the site of their deaths.

How does all of this relate to the mass bird deaths in Arkansas and Louisiana and the fish kill in Arkansas?  First, all the birds reported dead in those two states were Red-winged blackbirds – a target species of the “Bye Bye Blackbird” poisoning program.  Second, the dead birds suffered no visible external injuries.  Wildlife biologists admitted after their initial examinations of the dead birds that the birds died from internal trauma and blood clots – which would be consistent with the use of DRC 1339.  (By the way, state officials in Arkansas are now claiming that the birds suffered from blunt force trauma – an external injury).  Third, each fall millions of Red-winged blackbirds migrate from the northern states to Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana.  By December of each year, the birds are thick in those three states.  Once there, they consume agricultural crops, a justification for employing DRC 1339 against them.  Thus, the timing of the mass deaths coincides with the birds’ increased presence in those states and their depredations on agriculture.  Consequently, I believe there exists strong evidence to conclude that the Louisiana and Arkansas bird deaths resulted from a poisoning program.  The deaths of the birds in those two states resemble the deaths of the European starlings in South Dakota.  Moreover, the deaths of the birds in Arkansas and Louisiana is consistent with the use of DRC 1339.

As for the fish kill in Arkansas, I believe the USDA may have caused it, but I cannot be certain because I do not possess all the available data.  However, I think it is possible to postulate a cause for the fish kill.  Consider the following: on December 29, thousands of fish, including freshwater drum, sauger, white bass, and yellow bass, died in the Arkansas River between Ozark Lock and Dam and Hartman, Arkansas.  The day before the fish kill, portions of central Arkansas in and around Ozark Lock and Dam and Hartman received up to a half inch of rain.  A day later, the day of the fish kill, those same regions of central Arkansas received up to an inch of rain.  Some areas reported even more.  Little Rock recorded 1.52 inches.  If the USDA had baited a feedlot or series of feedlots in central Arkansas with DRC 1339 on December 28 or 29th, the rains could have easily pushed the poison into the Arkansas River resulting in fish kills.  We all know that feedlots are prone to excessive runoff.  We also know that the USDA admitted that DRC 1339 is “highly toxic to birds and aquatic invertebrates.”

The date of the fish kill coincided with the date of a likely bird baiting.  The Red-winged blackbirds died at Beebe, Arkansas, late on December 31, or early on January 1.  The date of the bird deaths coincides with a December 29 poisoning.  In other words, if the birds were poisoned on December 29, according to the USDA they would have died sometime between December 29 and January 1.  The evidence indicates the use of DRC 1339 in central Arkansas on December 29, 2010, likely in the area from Ozark, to Hartman, and maybe even further east toward Beebe.  It is quite possible both birds and fish died from the application of the poison.

Thus, to summarize my theory: the USDA baited areas in central Arkansas, with DRC 1339 on approximately December 28 or December 29.  The heavy rains in Arkansas on those two days washed the poison from a series of feedlots into the Arkansas River, killing thousands of fish downstream to Hartman.  The Red-winged blackbirds that ate that same poison on that same day flew south and east along their traditional flyway along the Arkansas River Valley.  Once over Beebe, the birds died from the gut-churning DRC 1339.  Neither God, Gaia, cold snaps, nor fireworks explains the bird deaths and fish kill.  Rather, it is quite possible that responsibility for the bird deaths and fish kill rests with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

One final note.  The USDA acknowledges that DRC 1339 can easily be consumed by non-targeted species.  For instance, ring-necked pheasants, quail, turkeys, and songbirds of every variety will unknowingly eat DRC 1339 if provided the opportunity to do so.  I ask, what is the mortality rate among non-targeted species from DRC 1339?  Also, I would like to know what happens when bobcats, coyotes, or bald eagles eat poisoned birds?  What happens when a poisoned ringed-neck pheasant staggers off a baiting site and is immediately eaten by a bobcat or coyote?  What then becomes of that predator species?  In order to promote the profitability of one small segment of the American agricultural economy, (feedlot operators), the USDA is potentially harming entire ecosystems.

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