Last month, residents of Yankton, South Dakota were puzzled by the hundreds of starlings lying dead throughout the area. Witness Alison Brown told the local NBC station, “The street where we park and the sidewalks were just covered with them.”

Well, the mystery was soon solved: The good folks at the U.S. Department of Agriculture had taken it upon themselves to take out the birds.

Poisoning birds is usually the sort of thing associated with psychopathic loners, not government agencies. Yet the USDA has a long history of mass avian slaughter. For example, a 2008 bird poisoning campaign in Washington state led one witness to say she thought “one of the 10 plagues of Egypt had struck down the birds.” And the recent killing in South Dakota paled in comparison to the scale of death the USDA achieved in New Jersey two years ago.

In 2009, the agency used poison to kill around 5,000 birds, leading Franklin Township Mayor Brian Levine to say, “It was raining birds.”  This, in turn, was nothing compared to the USDA’s goal a decade ago to kill 2 million blackbirds a year. (For what it’s worth, the USDA kills plenty of other animals, too, and gladly admits it in a handy-dandy chart.)

Why does the USDA do this sort of thing? This question was answered by former writer Stephanie Ernst in the wake of the New Jersey slaughter, in a post accurately titled: Thousands of Starlings Killed to Assist the Killing of Cattle & Chickens. As she explained, a “farmer was fed up with [the birds’] habit of eating the feed he puts out for the cattle and chickens whom he needs to fatten up before killing them.” So, at the farmer’s request, the USDA provided food for the starlings laced with the pesticide DRC-1339. That pesticide, incidentally, is also called Starlicide, and is manufactured by Ralston-Purina. It can take a bird up to three days to die from the poison.

Just like in 2009, the killing of starlings this year in South Dakota was as a favor to animal agriculture. According to Reuters, “USDA wildlife biologist Ricky Woods explained that a large group of starlings was causing problems in a north Nebraska cattle feedlot, eating the feed and leaving waste on both the feed and equipment.” So for the grievous sin of interfering with the $70 billion-plus cattle industry, the birds were sentenced to death. Does this prove that the USDA is totally in the pocket of the animal agriculture industry, ready to yell “How high?” whenever Big Ag asks them to jump? No … since that was proven a long time ago.

Despite the public outcry over this vaguely apocalyptic bird slaughter, don’t expect the U.S. Department of Agriculture to change its policies on its own. Tell them to find humane ways to deal with troublesome bird populations. Sign the Humane Society of the United States petition urging the USDA to stop the slaughter. Convenience is not a reason for killing.

Photo Credit: The HSUS