For the Birds Radio Program: Blackbird Poisoning

Original Air Date: Dec. 17, 2001

Poisoning blackbirds to protect sunflower crops that haven’t even been planted yet? There are better ways to control them.

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One of the most troubling issues I’ve read about in a long time is the plan to poison 6-million Red-winged Blackbirds in the Dakotas. Sunflower farmers are losing a total of about $10 to $20 million dollars a year, which is a lot of money, of course, but the loss is far smaller than the crop annually loses to disease, insects, weeds, and combine harvest, and despite these factors, the nation’s sunflower crops annually produce almost half a billion dollars worth of seeds.

Unfortunately, the losses from blackbirds are uneven–about 500 farmers lose over a quarter of their crops, which makes them understandably angry and wanting to do something about it. The National Sunflower Association has been putting enormous pressure on the US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS, to get rid of the blackbirds.

They’ve tried some other solutions. They’ve set out poisoned rice in sunflower fields during fall, but when a blackbird is faced with the choice between even non-toxic rice and its favorite seed, it goes for the sunflower, totally ignoring the bait. Some farmers have tried propane cannons triggered by electric timers to scare them, but when they’re not actually going off, the redwings use them for perches. Firecrackers have set fields on fire. One farmer sets up hawk-shaped kites on helium balloons. Another hovers over his fields in a helicopter, playing Willie Nelson music at top volume. At best, efforts to scare the birds merely send them to the next farmer’s fields.

So killing sounds like a good idea, right? But setting out poison in spring as is proposed won’t kill the blackbirds that actually cause the problems in fall, and will definitely kill a lot more than just blackbirds. During the time that redwings are migrating through the Dakotas, so are meadowlarks and an assortment of other grassland species such as longspurs.

At this point toxicologists know that although a lot of species, from blackbirds and magpies to Barn Owls, are exceptionally vulnerable to DRC-1339, mammals and at least some birds aren’t particularly susceptible to it. The problem is that there just isn’t enough data to understand why it’s so very toxic to some birds but not to others. Meadowlarks, which are in the same family as red-wings , are among the very vulnerable species. And for susceptible species, DRC-1339 is a very unpleasant way to die, shutting down the kidneys , slowly leading to uremic poisoning.

Ironically, poisoning the birds at winter’s end when there is so much abundant habitat for breeding won’t solve the redwing problem anyway. Blackbird numbers in America have skyrocketed thanks to the introduction of a European cattail, which they find just as good as American cattails for nesting.

There are a lot of reasons to oppose this project, but obviously the farmers need some relief. The most promising solution is to get rid of some of the invasive cattails. One pesticide, glyphosphate, is relatively innocuous to other species. In the years after it was used in test areas, numbers of many invertebrate species increased or remained stable, and duck numbers skyrocketed. Rails and marsh wrens, which hide in the cattails, declined in treated areas, but it would be impossible to eradicate enough cattails to hurt them, anyway. By significantly reducing red-wing breeding habitat , they can approach the problem at its source.

Right now APHIS is taking public comments about the proposed poisoning project. YOU can help by getting a copy of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement and sending them your comments during the comment period. Unfortunately, the draft statement was just released this December, and comments are due by January 7, 2002. This doesn’t give us much time, but it would be really helpful if people concerned about aspects of the program put as much pressure on APHIS as the National Sunflower Association is putting on it.