Nevertheless, the USDA's role in the South Dakota bird deaths puts a focus on a little-known government bird-control program that began in the 1960s under the name of Bye Bye Blackbird, which eventually became part of the USDA and was housed in the late '60s at a NASA facility. In 2009, USDA agents euthanized more than 4 million red-winged blackbirds, starlings, cowbirds, and grackles, primarily using pesticides that the government says are not harmful to pets or humans.
In addition to the USDA program, a so-called depredation order from the US Fish and Wildlife Service allows blackbirds, grackles, and starlings to be killed by anyone who says they pose health risks or cause economic damage. Though a permit is needed in some instances, the order is largely intended to cut through red tape for farmers, who often employ private contractors to kill the birds and do not need to report their bird culls to any authority.
"Every winter, there's massive and purposeful kills of these blackbirds," says Greg Butcher, the bird conservation director at the National Audubon Society. "These guys are professionals, and they don't want to advertise their work. They like to work fast, efficiently, and out of sight."
The depredation order, however, is under review for its impact on the rare rusty blackbird, which roosts with more common species. Ornithologists also suspect that the mass killings may be a factor in declining populations of those species in the US.
While the USDA keeps tabs on the number of birds the program euthanizes, the total death toll isn't known because private contractors operating under the depredation order aren't required to keep count in the case of blackbirds, cowbirds, grackles, and starlings.