In early January some unsuspecting residents of West Springfield and Agawam were shocked and frightened when they discovered dozens of dead or dying birds near their homes, some falling from trees on to lawns homes and cars.
The unusual incident understandably sparked fear and concern, prompting calls to town officials and the media.
It was soon discovered that the birds were part of a very large flock of European Starlings, that had been strategically poisoned by the United States Department of Agriculture as part of program aimed at addressing health risks and property damage caused by the birds at an Agawam industrial site.
The USDA said that personnel from the agency’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service had also carried out targeted poisonings on flocks in Belchertown and Ellington, Connecticut.
All three actions were in response to specific requests that the agency had received. APHIS does not provide the names of those seeking their assistance, as that information is protected under the Privacy Act.
“The work was requested because excess droppings were threatening human health and safety at an industrial site in Agawam and at nearby residences,” APHIS Public Affairs Specialist Richard Bell said. “They were also consuming livestock feed and threatening human and livestock health in Belchertown and Ellington.”
According to the National Wildlife Research Center, starlings carry a number of diseases including Salmonella, to humans, poultry, livestock, and Histoplasma capsulatum, which can cause histoplasmosis, a fungal disease of the lungs, in humans. Transmission is typically through droppings.
Starlings can also take a big bite out of crops and livestock feed.
“They can eat a lot of grain! That becomes a real economic problem,” said Gordy Cook, of Cook’s Farm in Hadley. Cook said that he uses scare tactics on his 225-acre farm where he has 80 dairy cows.
“I have never had to use the control program,” he said.
In 2000, Bio-Science published a study entitled the “Environmental and economic costs of non-indigenous species in the United States,” estimating starling damage to agriculture at $800 million a year.
Because the poisoning in January was not an effort to control the starling population, there was no specific number of birds targeted for removal. No information was provided on the number of birds killed at each site.
At each location, a substantial number of starlings were present.
“We observed 8,000 to 10,000 starlings at the Agawam site, 800 to 1,000 at the Belchertown site,” Bell said. In Ellington, Connecticut, roughly 23 miles from Agawam, the estimate was over 10,000.
“With starlings a big issue is with how they flock,” said Jeff Collins, director of conservation science at Mass Audubon in Lincoln.
Large flocks are formed in the fall through the winter. They will often seek protection from wind under bridges, in buildings, barns and in grain terminals.
Bell said that APHIS uses integrated pest management techniques, which include non-lethal measures such as fireworks, exclusion devices, vehicle chasing, harassment, sirens, horns, nest destruction, and eliminating food sources, but they are not always successful.
The poison used on the starlings was an avicide known as DRC-1339, which contains the active ingredient 3-Chloro-4-methylbenzenamine Hydrochloride. It is the only toxicant currently registered by the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency for lethal bird control.
As a restricted use pesticide, it can only be applied by USDA Wildlife Services employees certified in its application.
DRC-1339 is highly toxic to starlings, blackbirds, crows and gulls.
Unlike poisons used on rodents, it does not bio-accumulate, or build up in the animal’s system. Because it is quickly metabolized and excreted after ingestion, Bell said there is very low risk of secondary poisoning for animals that may feed on the poisoned birds.
As far as poisons are concerned, Collins said that rodenticides present a much great danger to wildlife.
“We have a great concern for the less regulated use of rodent poison, as it is longer lasting and has a much greater effect up the food chain.”
Bell said that applications are highly controlled and monitored to ensure that poison baits are not being consumed by any other species.
He explained that sites are first pre-baited with a non-poisonous special fat based bait that is highly attractive to starlings but not attractive to other songbirds.
The pre-bait is monitored to determine how fast it is being consumed and to ensure that no other species are feeding it before the actual poison bait is put out.
If other wildlife is seen feeding on the pre-bait, the site is abandoned and a new site prepared or the project is cancelled.
Collins said that Mass Audubon does not take issue with the recent starling control events.
“In this case, given the USDA’s specific focus on human health and safety, we don’t have a specific position against it,” he said. “We respect the role of the USDA in managing this non-native species.”
Starlings were introduced to North America in 1890 when a gentleman named Eugene Schieffelin, thought it would be nice idea to have every bird mentioned in William Shakespeare’s plays present America.
Schieffelin was a member of the American Acclimatization Society, a New York City group founded with the purpose of importing European plants and animals to the United States.
In two separate introductions, a total of 100 starlings were released into Central Park. Today, more than 200 million European Starlings range from Alaska to Mexico.
The success of this bird is due to its great adaptability regarding food and shelter and its aggressive nature, all of which have given it an ecological advantage over native species.
“Starlings are very aggressive and they can out compete native cavity nesting birds like tree swallows woodpeckers and bluebirds,” Collins said.
As opportunistic omnivores, they exploit a variety of food resources such as a diversity of insects, snails, earthworms, nectar, wild and cultivated fruits and berries, seeds, grains, livestock feed and garbage.
Some admire this non-native songbird for its gregarious disposition, its skills in vocal mimicry, and its aptitude for survival, but many see the starling as invasive pest.
The International Union for Conservation and Nature has placed the starling on its list of “100 of the World’s Worst Invasive Alien Species.”