Bird deaths in Yankton linked to poison

Yankton Animal Control Officer Lisa Brasel said the starling deaths were likely caused by USDA efforts using poison to reduce the birds at a nearby Nebraska feedlot. (Kelly Hertz/P&D)

Local officials said Tuesday that a poison that poses no risk to humans or pets is believed to be the cause of a large bird die-off in Yankton.

More than 300 dead starlings have been found in downtown Yankton since Monday morning.

At a hastily-called media conference Tuesday afternoon, Yankton Animal Control Officer Lisa Brasel said DRC-1339, a bird poison used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), was the probable source of the deaths.

Brasel said a USDA official contacted her Tuesday afternoon after seeing news of the dead birds.

In an interview with the Press & Dakotan, wildlife biologist Ricky Woods confirmed that he was involved with dispersing DRC-1339 at a cattle feedlot in Nebraska about 10 miles south of Yankton. He is with the USDAs Animal and Plant Health Inspections Service Wildlife Services and is based in Lincoln, Neb.

Im pretty confident that is what caused the deaths of these birds, Woods said. Theres too much coincidence for it not to be the source.

He said starlings at the livestock facility were targeted for eradication when the poison was put out Thursday.

(The feedlot owners) had a significant number of birds on their property consuming feed and causing issues with their fecal matter, Woods stated. They contacted us. We came in and checked out the area. We then used a poison that is specific only to birds.

Besides starlings, DRC-1339 which can only be sold to government agencies and qualified pest control officers is also effective on birds such as crows and blackbirds. It does not affect birds of prey who may eat the poisoned animals. The pesticide impairs liver and kidney functions, and death apparently results from uremic poisoning, or the accumulation of waste products in the body. Death appears to be painless and usually occurs within three days of consuming the poison.

Woods said starlings are practically the only birds left at feedlots this time of year. Additionally, because they are very aggressive, they will beat other birds to the poison. Before federal officials put out DRC-1339, they put out a pre-bait to make sure only the target birds will be affected.

It is a service the USDA will provide to livestock owners if requested and the situation warrants it, Woods explained.

They basically have to be suffering property damage or losing a significant amount of money, he said. There has to be some sort of hardship before well come in and do any reduction.

The bird deaths 10 miles away in Yankton are a unique occurrence, Woods stated.

Weve done reductions at this (feedlot) in previous years and the birds didnt make it that far, he said. Its kind of surprising they made it that far, but its not completely out of the realm.

The birds were found around trees on the north side of Riverside Park in Yankton, as well as on the north side of Second Street between Capitol and Pine streets. Some dead starlings remained clinging to the trees.

Brasel described the scene as creepy.

Before the call from Woods, Brasel said she had planned to send some of the birds to South Dakota State University for tests to determine the cause of death.

Im not sure (if we will follow through with testing now), she said. I was going to call Pierre and let them know what I found out to see what they wanted to do with it.

The mass bird death in Yankton occurred as public interest has surged because of other recent large animal kill-offs around the world. Many began taking notice when, on New Years Eve, an estimated 5,000 blackbirds dropped dead in Beebe, Ark. Since then, reports of more bird deaths, as well as those of crabs, cows and fish, have been received from around the world. Some of the incidents have been attributed to pedestrian causes, while others await explanation.

A case similar to that in Yankton transpired in Franklin Township, N.J., in January 2009. USA TODAY reported at the time that the USDA used DRC-1339 on a farm to kill 5,000 starlings that were eating feed meant for cattle and chickens, and defecating in feeding bowls. Residents of the rural community became alarmed when the birds began dropping from the sky.

A USDA spokesman responding to the 2009 incident said the agency would try to do a better job of notifying the public of bird reduction efforts in the future.

Woods reassured people that there is no danger in picking up the birds with rubber gloves or a plastic sack and throwing them in a dumpster. He also offered to make arrangements to have bird corpses collected.

Basically, by the time the birds die, there is no poison left in their system. So if somebody were to handle the birds, or their cat or dog were to grab one, there would be no issues, Woods said. If youre capable of picking them up and getting rid of them, pick them up and get rid of them. Otherwise, I will make other arrangements.

He can be reached at (402) 450-5377.

Yankton City Manager Doug Russell said he felt comfortable Monday that the dead birds posed no health risks to humans based on the knowledge of local animal experts.

However, to have an entity come forward and let us know what occurred is nice to hear, he stated.

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