For the Birds Radio Program: Poisoned Birds

Original Air Date: Oct. 22, 1999 (estimated date)

About 27,000 birds were killed on October 16 when a farmer spread Furidan on his entire wheat crop. So far, no charges have been filed.

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On October 16th, thousands of birds in a farm field near Freeburg, Illinois, were found dead. Ornithologists and Illinois state conservation officers originally announced that 10,000 birds had died when their bodies were dashed to the ground by a massive wind shear. This seemed consistent with the fact that most of the birds were found head down on the ground, but oddly, the dead birds included species that don’t normally fly together in flocks, like Horned Larks mixed with Red-winged Blackbirds. My suspicions were aroused, but I was trying not to give legitimate pesticides a bum rap. Not even at my most cynical would I have suspected the real killer. The farmer had spread the pesticide Furidan, a chemical usually sprayed directly on seeds or plants, on his entire wheat crop field, which blatantly violates the regulations clearly labeled on the Furidan container. One spokesman for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources was quoted saying that the insecticide was used “apparently for the sole purpose of eliminating a population of blackbirds that was perceived to be a nuisance.”

Furidan is a powerful and dangerous poison—many people don’t realize that such toxins are still used on crops eaten by humans. The total estimated bird kill on the field was some 27,000. About 75 percent of them were Red-winged Blackbirds, and the remainder included Brown-headed Cowbirds, grackles, starlings, and Horned Larks. Only two birds were found still clinging to life in the field. One red-wing apparently didn’t eat a lethal dose, and one immature Red-tailed Hawk vomited up the carcass of a poisoned bird and is expected to recover. Officials have collected all the poisoned carcasses to prevent other birds and mammals from eating them. No one has announced anything about whether the wheat on that field will be fit for human consumption after such a massive dose of an obviously dangerous insecticide.

As of when this program was produced, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents are still trying to determine whether the poisoning was intentional. If it was, the land owner will face federal as well as state charges. But so far, no charges have been filed.

It’s easy in 1999 to imagine that the Environmental Protection Agency is safeguarding the nation from this kind of event, but the truth is that the EPA hasn’t been doing field testing of new chemicals since the Bush Administration and Dan Quayle’s Competitiveness Committee gutted several environmental laws. But the catastrophic effects of Furidan have been known for a long time.

We humans are supposed to be the stewards of this planet. Some people don’t subscribe to an environmental ethic that says we should preserve the planet for the sake of plants and animals, but one would think that simple self-interest and love for our human children would be enough to keep us from spreading hazardous poisons on our wheat fields. One would think. But as 27,000 dead birds attest, one would be wrong.