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'All over': Startling starling deaths raise questions in Billings neighborhood

Dead starling in Billings neighborhood
Posted at 4:13 PM, Mar 17, 2023

BILLINGS — Dozens of starling birds have been found dead in a Billings South Side neighborhood over the last week, causing residents to question the cause of what at first seemed to be random deaths.

Josh Degele owns a home on Washington Street and is used to seeing critters on his one acre of land. Sunday was no different when he watched birds land in his yard.

Until he noticed something unusual.

"It started Sunday night. I noticed there was quite a few that landed in the yard, and some of them just never got up and left," Degele said Thursday.

In the last five days, he has found 27 dead starlings on his property. Four were found while MTN News was with him Thursday afternoon. Degele said the birds don't always look dead when he finds them.

Dead starling in Billings neighborhood

“They’re usually peaceful. Some of them just land, they’re standing on their feet. I even have some pictures of some that their beaks aren’t even down. They’re just standing dead,” he said.

The deaths aren't just occurring on his property. Across the street, his neighbor told him they'd picked up over 100 dead birds.

Dead starlings

“You just look in front yards, you can see them under trees all over,” Degele said. "It just seems so weird, the amount out of nowhere.”

But according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it isn't out of nowhere. USDA spokesperson Tanya Espinosa said in an email Thursday the agency is using an avicide (a bird poison) to reduce the number of birds where "their presence may cause disease to livestock, the risk of their fecal matter contaminating livestock feed is high, and in areas where the size of the roost and the fecal matter may cause a human health and safety issue."

Espinosa said they are using a treatment called DRC-1339 to kill the birds, and those areas with DRC-1339 are monitored beforehand to ensure only starlings are ingesting the chemical. Espinosa would not give out the locations that DRC-1339 is being used in Billings.

Espinosa also stated that "DRC-1339 works very quickly, within hours, however dead birds may be found days afterwards due to their location" and "the dead birds do not pose a threat to humans or pets."

But Degele is skeptical about the little information given out beforehand about the abatement project.

“For nobody to say anything about it, that’s just really weird,” he said. “If it drops a bird out of the air and kills it, if your cat eats it, your cat's probably going to be at risk. Your dog’s probably at risk.”