For the Birds Radio Program: Rid-a-Bird

Original Air Date: July 7, 1989

A poison for killing House Sparrows and starlings causes too much collateral damage.

Audio missing



(Recording of a House Sparrow)

Back in January I received a letter from WOJB listener Scott Tice about an advertisement he saw in Successful Farming, the magazine of farm management. The first panel of the ad shows four House Sparrows sitting on a perch, the second panel shows an empty perch, and the caption reads, “Here today…gone tomorrow....Eliminate the nuisance and mess of pest birds today with RID-A-BIRD perches, the proven method of pest bird control. We guarantee it…”

I wrote for more information. Schultz Distributing Company in Miltona, Minnesota, sent me a pamphlet titled, “English Sparrows and Starlings are Hazardous to Your Health and Wealth.” They left out some minor facts, such as that starlings are actually considered to be economically valuable to farmers. Unlike the native American blackbirds that destroy millions of dollars of grain every winter in the central states, at least 50% of the diet of starlings is insects—this introduced bird is the most effective enemy of the clover weevil in America, and also specializes in cutworms, Japanese beetles, grasshoppers, and other pests. In New Zealand people actually set out starling houses the way people here set out bluebird boxes because starlings are so beneficial.

Since Schultz Distributing Company sells Rid-A-Bird, they naturally didn’t mention any of the many non-toxic alternatives for eliminating or discouraging pest birds. And nowhere was there any indication that it’s illegal to kill native American birds, nor was there any information about how to avoid killing protected species. I received a second mailing, this time from the Rid-a-bird Company itself, which did note that “The RID-A-BIRD perch and the RID-A-BIRD solution are legal to use for the control of English sparrows, starlings and pigeons; the three birds that are not protected by Federal Law.” But this packet too neglected to warn customers against using it purposely or accidentally against protected birds. And neither packet of information gave the name of the avicide–that is, the bird poison–that they use.

It took quite a bit of searching around before I finally found out that it’s called “Fenthion” or “Baytex.” It’s an insecticide used for mosquito abatement and to kill fleas and ticks on livestock and pets. But it is also the only contact avicide registered by the EPA. It’s mainly used for this purpose on farms, and at refineries, power plants, and airports.

When a bird sits on a RID-A-BIRD perch, the poison on its feet is slowly absorbed through the skin into its system. It takes up to 48 hours for the bird to die—meanwhile it can fly as far as 15 miles from the perch site. The RID-A-BIRD company considers this a selling point, because there aren’t dead birds laying around to warn other birds away or to make an unsightly and smelly mess, but again, their brochures don’t give the full story. As the dying birds weaken, they’re easily caught and eaten by predators, which take up the poison into their own systems and soon die. In 1985, Illinois Commonwealth Edison Company’s use of the chemical to kill some nuisance birds led to the known deaths of 21 hawks and owls. Wildlife managers generally use the rule that for every dead raptor found, another 10 carcasses go unnoticed, which means that that one project may well have killed over 200 hawks and owls. And at least one Bald Eagle, a species seriously endangered in Illinois, was killed near Havana, Illinois, from eating poisoned prey from another bird eradication project. Falconers and conservation organizations in Illinois are currently working to ban the use of Fenthion in bird perches. People in Wisconsin and Minnesota might be wise to follow suit.

(Recording of a House Sparrow)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”