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Bye, bye birdie

Steve Puterski
sputerski@lahontanvalleynews.com
A flock of Eurpoean starlings litter a feedlot in Fallon. The birds were being eradicated in March by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to prevent the spreading of disease to livestock.
Courtesy Jack Spencer / USDA | LVN

A mass death toll of starlings took many county residents by surprise.

A recent rain of starlings fell on county residents like a pseudo-biblical plague.

The birds, which are considered a non-native invasive species by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, have been migrating north for the past four to six weeks.

Estimates by the agency target the population at more the one million, which is up considerably from previous years likely due to the early cold weather in the northern U.S. and Canada.

As a result of the birds’ status, the USDA has been eradicating as many birds as possible through a poison to protect livestock.

Because of the incredible numbers, the birds’ feces gets mixed up with livestock feed and water supply, which can and has killed those animals.

Jack Spencer, a supervisory wildlife biologist for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), confirmed the program, which has been in existence on and off for the past 25 years.

He said the program is designed to protect milk cows as the European starlings are a threat to livestock. They can spread salmonella to feed and water, according to a USDA report.

The report, which was conducted in 2011 and commissioned by the APHIS’ National Wildlife Research Center (NWRC), stated salmonella was widespread at 10 feedlots where the study was researched.

The report said salmonella was found in “2.5 percent of starlings, 8.4 percent in cattle feed, 13.6 in cattle water and 6.5 percent of cattle fecal samples.”

In addition, the report said the birds can spread salmonella through their feet and feathers, walking from feces covered ground into feed and water troughs.

According to Travis Kocurek, public affairs specialist with APHIS, said the starlings can cause disease, reduce production in livestock, carry diseases between farms and cause crop losses.

“A group of 1,000 starlings can eat about 36–40 pounds of food per day, often consuming the energy-dense particles in the food,” he added. “This can lead to reduced milk production if the dairy cattle are not receiving adequate nutrition when the birds are present. Bird feces on buildings and equipment can shorten their useful life and increase cleanup costs, as well as potentially exposing farm workers to disease. Bird feces can contaminate food and water sources, putting cattle at risk for salmonella and E. Coli infections if ingested.”

Kocurek said the program is only at the request of dairies and feedlots and non-lethal recommendations have been asked by those affected by the starlings.

As for preventative measures, he said producers can keep feed in protective areas, prevent the birds from entering buildings, cover feed piles and eliminate roosting areas.

However, Churchill County residents took to social media to voice their concerns about a lack of notification.

Kocurek said the agency followed all regulations concerning notifying local (city, county, state and federal) agencies.

“WS (Wildlife Services) followed the established procedures for notification, but will review the process to determine if changes are warranted,” he said.

In addition, residents may pick up the bird and dispose of them in the trash, but the APHIS recommends using disposable gloves or a plastic bag to avoid any possible exposure.

APHIS uses DRC-1339, an avicide, to kill the birds. Kocurek said the pesticide generally takes one to three days, but the majority of starlings who consume the bait die within 12 hours.

“Within two hours, a bird will metabolize and excrete the pesticide, which is not accumulated in the body,” he explained.

“A scavenging animal should not be harmed by eating or playing with a dead starling. The bird will excrete all or most of the pesticide prior to succumbing. Research suggests a cat, owl or other raptor would need to feed only on the birds for more than several months to be affected.”

Fallon resident Gary Smith said he first noticed massive flocks about six weeks ago, when the birds would fly up from the south.

After a round of poisoning, which he was unaware of initially, the birds then came form the west.

Smith said thousands of birds took up residence in his neighborhood on Verona Way off Coleman Road. His home sits on the banks of one of the canal waterways and across the bank sits a thick mix of brush and trees.

There, Smith said, the birds would hole up and could be heard throughout the night. Once the poisoning began, however, the smell of dead birds filled the air.

But the initial shock, and lack of communication from the USDA, took Smith by surprise.

“It was like Alfred Hitchcocks ‘The Brirds,’” he explained.

The density of the starlings was noticeable as Smith pointed out how the brush and trees were painted white with the birds’ feces. Last week, after many phone calls to discover the source of the program, USDA officials came to Smith’s property and hauled away thousands of birds in garbage bags.

The corpses littered both banks and several dead birds could still be seen hanging from trees on the north bank.