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Worse Than Fireworks Deaths? Government Blackbird Poisoning

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Do wildlife officials feel just a little hypocritical answering media questions about the New Year's Eve blackbird "rain" when they know they kill 200 times that amount a year as "pests"?

In 2009 the US Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), part of USDA, says it poisoned 489,444 red-winged blackbirds in Texas and 461,669 in Louisiana. It also shot 4,217 blackbirds in California, 2,246 in North Dakota and 1,063 in Oregon according to its posted records.

We won't even talk about the starlings, crows, ravens, doves, geese, owls (yes owls) hawks, pigeons, ducks, larks, woodpeckers and coots our tax dollars annihilated to benefit ranchers, farmers and other private interests. Or the squirrels, rabbits, badgers, bobcats, beavers, woodchucks, coyotes, opossums, raccoons and mountain lions.

blackbirds

The he-men at the Wildlife Service also shot 29 great blue herons, 820 cattle egrets and 115 white-faced ibises in 2009, despite the known dangers of approaching shore birds.

It's hard to know which is worse: government agencies like APHIS, Louisiana State University and the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry helping private rice farmers and landowners with our tax dollars. Or the scorched earth baiting of their rice fields with poison "until blackbird populations are depleted," as LSU's Rice Research Station News puts it.

APHIS even uses caged red-winged blackbirds as decoys to attract wild ones says Audubon magazine and "pre-baits" an area with unpoisoned food to ensure the most takers.

Nor does the government's blackbird poison only kill blackbirds.

"APHIS makes sure that the poisoned banquet is especially tempting for wildlife by laying the food out in the spring. This attracts birds and other wildlife because food sources, especially insects, are limited in early spring," says the National Audubon Society. "The poisoned rice also looks very tasty because the birds are migrating. The poisoned rice is a ready buffet for any bird to eat, but especially those who are tired and hungry from flying."

The government used the chemical DRC-1339 to poison the over million blackbirds it killed in 2009, including in Louisiana. The avicide, called Starlicide causes "irreversible kidney and heart damage" says APHIS. "A quiet and apparent painless death normally occurs 1-3 days following ingestion," writes an APHIS spokesman on the site, probably secure in the fact that his death won't take three days.

Government wildlife officials may also feel hypocritical about the thousands of dead drum fish that appeared in the Arkansas River a few days before the red-winged blackbirds fell from the sky on New Year's Eve.

That's because wildlife agencies also kill entire waterways of fish when it serves their purpose.

Last year, Illinois wildlife officials poisoned 90 tons of goldfish, gizzard and shad in the Chicago Sanitary and Shipping Canal with the chemical Rotenone, which suffocates fish, to support the sport fishing industry. A year earlier they poisoned tens of thousands of goldfish, koi, bass, crappie, catfish and sunfish/bluegill hybrids in Chicago's Lincoln Park to rehab the pond.

Whether killing fish to save a pond or blackbirds to help farmers, government wildlife officials honor neither the "public" or "trust" in the Public Trust Doctrine they are sworn to. And wildlife has a lot more to fear than New Year's Eve.

Martha Rosenberg is a columnist and cartoonist, who writes about public health

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