The colder the winter the higher the number of starlings that visit the feedlots and dairy operations to fill their bellies on the best picks of grain for the cows, according to Roger Woodruff, state director of the United States Department of Agriculture.
In one Sunnyside feedlot operation, Woodruff said there have been up to 100,000 starlings. The birds not only eat the feed, they also compete for food and nesting sights with other cavity nesting birds, including blue birds and woodpeckers, and they also cause millions of dollars in damages to the fruit industry, said Woodruff.
"Starlings have a tremendous capability for reproduction," he said. "They can produce three broods per year and have three to five young per brood."
To help control the birds, which are European Starlings and not native to the United States, Woodruff said the USDA contracts with feed operations to bait the birds with an avicide called DRC 1339. Woodruff said that he could not legally identify the feedlot where the birds have been baited.
The chemical, which was described by Woodruff as "very selective," was developed several years ago and has virtually no secondary hazards to other animals when used properly.
"It's primarily used in the winter time when birds come to the feedlots to feed," he said.
The starlings migrate out of Canada and feed across Washington state. In the baiting process, the birds are poisoned at the feedlots and die within 24 hours.
"This toxicant is called fast-acting. Typically most birds, once they've ingested this, they'll die on the roost," said Woodruff. "They pretty much go to sleep and don't wake up."
The problem is many of the birds root in trees along Mabton-Sunnyside Highway at about milepost #5.
Neighbors living along that stretch of road know exactly which years the USDA contracts with local feedlots because they end up with hundreds of dead birds and questions on who to contact to clean them up.
Four days after the birds died at his mother's house, Sunnyside resident Joe Stearns found the proper people to contact to clean up the dead bird carcasses at his mother's house.
His nephew, who lives across the road from his mother, has children and decided to clean up the birds himself, Stearns said. His nephew picked up 475 birds in his yard.
As a part of the contract with the USDA, feeding operations are required to send workers out to clean up the dead animals, said Woodruff, but often those living along Mabton-Sunnyside Highway don't know who to call.
Woodruff said the health department is contacted when the birds are baited and he said in the future there is a possibility that the USDA will also contact home owners in the area where the birds roost and die.
Steve Erickson of Van de Graaf Ranches said that his feedlot operation contracted with the USDA to bait the birds.
"When they come in they're in a swarm," he said. "They're like a small black cloud. It's unbelievable."
He said the birds eat an incredible amount of feed and leave a mess behind.
"We're doing a public service," he said.
On dairies and feedlots, the birds can eat up to half their body weight in a day, said Woodruff.
"They can eat tons of feed per day," he said, adding that they peck out all of the protein pellets in the feed, which causes beef weight to taper off.
For those with dead birds on their property, they can call the USDA district office in Moses Lake to have clean-up crews come and dispose of the dead birds. The district office can be reached at (509) 765-7962.
For those who pick up the dead birds themselves, Woodruff suggests they wear gloves and dispose of the animals in trash bags. He said washing up after disposing of the animals is essential.
"I don't encourage people to clean them up, themselves," he added.
. Melissa Browning can be contacted at (509) 837-4500, or e-mail email@example.com