Bye Bye Birdie
Reuters reported in January that the thousands of starlings found dead near South Yankton, SD were the result of poisoning by the USDA. The original news link: http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE70J7KU20110120
Naturally, I found the idea of poisoning the birds appalling, and was disgusted that a government agency supported by tax dollars would not only condone the action but provide the poison and apply it on behalf of the feedlot owner. Of course, the recent spate of mass bird deaths (in AK) and other dramatic animal deaths worldwide came to mind. In the case of South Dakota, the first thing that concerned me was the poison that might remain in the dead birds could conceivably be eaten by a pet or another animal, or worse, pollute a nearby river. Thus, the last few weeks I spent time investigating the practice, and the anger I felt was replaced by confusion. It appears that the problem is far more complex.
First, the problem. European Starlings were the specifically targeted birds. There doesn’t appear to be a fan-club for Starlings, as even avid bird lovers agree that they are an invasive species known to overwhelm a habitat, force other birds (included endangered species) from nests to take them over, and leave extreme amounts of excrement wherever they congregate. Their flocks range from the hundreds to hundreds of thousands, and their evening ritual formations can darken the sky. Starlings also carry diseases (as do most birds) that can be spread to humans by direct contact or through the meat of animals that have eaten feed contaminated by the excrement.
In this case, a feedlot in Nebraska reported to the USDA that Starlings were indeed contaminating their cattle feed. However, while the Reuters report notes that the cattle lot operator was concerned with disease, my interview with Ricky Woods, the APHIS/USDA worker who was cited in the original article and who handled the abatement procedure, revealed another aspect of the problem. While he agreed that the operator was concerned about excessive feces on farm equipment, he added that the more pressing issue that led to the poisoning was that the Starlings, a flock of 5000 who had begun roosting on the feedlot, were eating massive quantities of grain. Woods stated that on average, 1000 starlings will eat 40 pounds of cattle feed per day, meaning that the operator was losing 200 pounds of cattle feed onsite in a single day (three tons per month). Admittedly this would be an expensive issue for a feedlot operator (Woods).
Woods explained the procedure for poisoning the starlings, per USDA regulations. An operator can call out a USDA representative to examine the problem and confirm the issue of the starlings, estimating the flock size and that the damage is a viable concern. Then, on three separate occasions, the USDA rep will do a preliminary bait test with cracked corn (no poison), to observe whether the starlings will accept the bait and to confirm that no endangered species are part of the flock to be poisoned. If it is determined that the flock is made up of starlings and not other birds, a precise amount of the poison DRC-1339 is applied to a specific, confined area (and not in open pasturage). The birds usually die immediately (it affects their nervous system), and in this case, it was an anomaly that they flew away to die near Yankton.
The poison itself is clearly labeled: “high acute toxicity to nontarget birds and aquatic invertebrates”, with the specific direction that its runoff is considered hazardous and the poison should not be applied to or near water (DRC label). However, if it is used within the feedlot, in the tons of waste that form a semi-liquid sludge, couldn’t the poison still spread? After all, what is done with the manure from a CAFO lot? It varies between lagoons that serve as holding basins or liquefied to be sprayed into the air to facilitate evaporation (Imhoff).
In November, 2001, Audubon presented an essay by Ted Williams that explores the role of the USDA and their representatives (APHIS) in baiting birds using DRC-1339. His approach to the matter seems fairly balanced:
"APHIS doesn't casually festoon the American landscape with biocides. In controlled experiments it has been killing blackbirds with rice laced with DRC-1339, a short-lived, rapidly metabolized poison with a long track record of effectiveness, safety, and selectivity. For 30 years DRC-1339 has been successfully used on ravens, crows, pigeons, starlings, cowbirds, grackles, red-winged blackbirds, magpies, and sundry gulls. Because it is quickly metabolized, the possibility of secondary poisoning (in which a bird or mammal dies from eating a stricken blackbird) is remote. Direct mortality of nontargets is probably inevitable but, in this case at least, utterly unacceptable in any quantity because the proposed program is basically a political gesture that is unlikely to succeed…"
In the situation he was describing, sunflower growers were complaining about blackbirds. However, the similarity between situations leads to a similar conclusion: how successful can the abatement of the starlings be if it’s likely that another flock will take their place? Is it worth the risk to nontargeted, and possibly endangered, birds that may be mixed in the flock?
Woods admits that the procedure is not common and it was the only time this year he’s employed the poison bait, having done so twice last year in his designated region. Rather, he said, the USDA instructs feedlots to close doors and take steps to prevent the birds from roosting. However, are they required to implement such a simple solution as covering the cattle feed? In this case, it wasn’t deemed reasonable. Interestingly, he also said that the USDA will respond to any size farm, small or massive, that feels their cattle or crops are in danger. Lost expense and possibility of disease have been used to justify the action so far.
However, one advantage of the APHIS/USDA policy especially warrants mentioning. In their cooperative work with farmers and feedlot operators, their expertise and intervention prevents an operator from taking matters into their own hands, poisoning indiscriminately and “off the record” using more dangerous methods that can’t be tracked.
However, the events can be examined further and lead to an ethical quandary. First, the operator was a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO). A CAFO is quite simply, not a farm. It is a factory that processes, in this case, beef. A CAFO normally gets special tax breaks and government subsidies to operate, yet at the same time are not required to meet Clean Air or Safety Requirements as an industrial facility does. In most cases, cattle in a CAFO rarely see the outdoors, instead being penned up and given steroids to ensure fast growth (in some cases, the animals are unable to carry their own weight by the distortion of their genetics).
With disease being cited as a concern for the poisoning, it should be noted what cattle are fed in a CAFO facility. In his new book, CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories
, Dan Imhoff quotes two studies, one from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and the other from Environmental Health Perspectives that explain exactly what is in some cattle feed: chicken feathers, poultry excrement, and ‘various minerals and metals’. Additionally, ‘poultry litter’, the bedding on which confined chickens reside for six weeks before slaughter, is fed to the cattle. The litter itself can contain “the rendered remains of slaughtered cattle” (
CAFO 144). Given the potential for disease implicit in the excrement already, the additional additives of antibiotics and pharmaceutics given to both chickens and cattle to boost their size and prevent illness prior to slaughter seem to make the Starlings potential impact much less than what the CAFO is already sustaining.
Consider too, the feed that the Starlings were said to consume. If a feedlot is losing three tons of feed in a single month due to the birds, just how big is the facility? The amount of feed provided must be exponentially higher, meaning that this CAFO factory is creating tons of its own cattle excrement to deal with. One environmental study based of a proposed moderate-sized CAFO in South Dakota estimated 684 tons of manure per day, a total of 62 million gallons of manure (Weida 11). Woods would not identify the cattle lot, but did confirm it was a moderate-sized CAFO. Comparatively, could the Starlings’ waste possibly come close to what the cattle are putting out? The cattle waste likely contains the same chemicals that went in: antibiotics, steroids, estrogen, as well as any bacteria left from the animals they consumed. Can a CAFO that creates such a vast amount of fecal matter complain about that of a flock of birds? Are workers, already working in crowded and filthy conditions where up to half of the cattle carry E. Coli, really be at risk by the possibility of avian disease from the Starlings? In CAFO
, Michael Pollan’s essay “Power Steer: On the Trail of Industrial Beef”
traces the very path of a feedlot animal from calf to slaughter, pointing out the various avenues for disease to be transmitted into the food chain.
Incidentally, it should be noted that smaller, traditional farms are less likely to have a need to poison Starlings. By means of their smaller size and pasturing methods, manure is not concentrated as densely. Close contact with farm animals prevents the mass use of antibiotics as a preventive, instead using it discriminately on an animal that is actually sick and can be monitored. With smaller farms, feeding is intensely observed to prevent the loss of expensive feed, and the food is kept covered. A small farm couldn’t sustain the loss of feed, while a CAFO considers it an operating cost and makes no attempt to cover their cattle feed, leaving vast amounts of animal offal and additives outdoors to be mixed by tractor.
In addition, consider that the food placed for the cattle is actually attracting the birds in the first place. SRAP Communications, a nonprofit organization promoting Socially Responsible Agriculture, stated in an email that “this is one more indication that industrial feeding operations are not sustainable--because they are not even compatible with the normal wildlife in semi-urban settings. Rather than incur the cost to responsibly manage their feed, the CAFO operators prefer to kill the birds that are drawn to their irresponsibly stored material”
Another sort of abatement that could potentially be implemented instead of poison is a auditory pest repellent that is “a combination of distress cries and predator bird sounds
,” that would succeed in making “starlings, grackles and black birds feel uncomfortable living in the area, driving them to a more friendly location”(
Powell). Used in conjunction with visual preventatives (include “terror eyes”) and spike installation to prevent roosting, a CAFO could reduce the appeal of their lot by non-chemical means.
Both sides can make a compelling case: the fear of disease being brought to our dinner tables definitely gets our attention. But at what point is intervention necessary, and can it be avoided? While the USDA’s APHIS department was straightforward in answering my questions, their scope of nuisance-animal and predator abatement is wide. In response to my questions, Imhoff responded via email:
We see this war against nature approach applied by the USDA in other aspects of agriculture. Wolves, coyotes, and mountain lions are killed across the country every year to protect ranchers and their animals. Despite the dubious outcomes, the real irony is that many of those calves that are being protected at the expense of wild predators end their days knee-deep in feces, in a barren lot with only cows and starlings around for companionship and scenery. And there are many livestock rearing cultures around the world that have learned to successfully coexist with predators
As consumers, how do we decide? Some homeowners regularly use insecticides and poisons to combat weeds, gophers, and other unwanted pests. Does the average person who can purchase Roundup or another common chemical off the shelf first determine a specific bait area, verify that non-target species are protected, and follow up with preventive measures? On the other hand, can an animal factory that produces tons of contaminated fecal matter in an unnaturally dense environment really complain about the consequential activities of the birds drawn to their massive amounts of unprotected feed?
--------------essay by Amy Henry
DRC 1339 product label
, USDA http://www.aphis.usda.gov/wildlife_damage/nwrc/registration/content/56228-10%20DRC%201339%20Feedlot%2001-06%20watermarked.pdf
Imhoff, Daniel. CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories
. California: Earth Aware, 2010. Print.
Imhoff, Daniel. Email response. 1/31/2011
Powell, Lani. “Starlings: Information….” Professional Pest Control
. Commercial website. http://www.pestproducts.com/starlings.htm
Socially Responsible Agriculture Project
. Nonprofit web site. www.sraproject.org Email response. 2/3/2011
Weida, Dr. William J. “Comments on the Potential Regional Economic Effects of Large Feedlots”. Socially Responsible Agricultural Project.
Sraproject.org. Aug 24, 2001.
Williams, Ted. “Red Baiting”. Audubon.
Nov 2001. New York: National Audubon Society.
Woods, Ricky. APHIS representative. United States Department of Agriculture
. Phone interview 1/26/11, 1/31/11