YANKTON, S.D. - More than 200 starlings found dead in downtown Yankton caused widespread speculation, but officials say it was the federal government, not the weather or the apocalypse, that likely caused the birds to drop dead.
The feathered corpses were found Monday by an animal control officer around trees on the north side of Riverside Park and the north side of Second Street. Some of the dead birds were still being picked up Tuesday.
Charmel Neal, manager of the downtown Pump N' Stuff, said she was shocked when she heard the news.
"It just kind of makes me wonder why they didn't go where they needed to go," she said.
Vicki Galvan, a sales associate at Ace Hardware, who often encounters customers seeking to get rid of pigeons and starlings, said she thought the cold weather did the birds in. She was glad, saying the birds were a "nuisance" downtown.
Starlings are native to Europe, but they have spread throughout North America. David Swanson, an ornithology professor at the University of South Dakota, said the birds, which are accustomed to being around humans, remain in South Dakota year-round and are likely found in cities, towns and around barns.
Assistant Yankton Police Chief Jerry Hisek, who didn't recall such a mass death of animals in the 35 years that he has lived in the area, said the incident seemed similar to what has occurred recently in other parts of the country.
Thousands of red-winged black birds fell from the sky Dec. 31 in Beebe, Ark. State officials determined they died as a result of blunt trauma. A few days later an estimated 500 red-winged blackbirds were found lying dead along a highway in Pointe Coupee Parish, La.
Large numbers of dead birds were also recently found in Mississippi and California.
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Some fear the bird die-offs across the country are the result of pollution or even signs of the apocalypse.
However, United States Department of Agriculture wildlife biologist Ricky Woods said he's confident he knows what killed the birds.
He said it was the USDA, which poisoned them at a feedlot in Nebraska.
Woods said the officials poisoned the birds because the property owners were having problems with a large number of starlings at the lot.
Dead birds don't normally cause a stir because the animals usually die at the location where they were poisoned, Woods said, where people are generally excited to see their bird problems end.
"In this case they ended up coming 10 miles or better into town, where they died," said Woods, who is based in the agency's Lincoln office.
The poison used to kill the starlings does not pose a danger to people who come in contact with the dead birds, Woods said, or to pets or wild animals that may eat the birds.
Other than a risk of contracting salmonella from coming into contact with bird droppings, South Dakota State Epidemiologist Lon Kightlinger said residents shouldn't be concerned about catching diseases from the dead birds.
"Nevertheless people shouldn't mess around with them," he said. "They should put them in plastic bags and dispose of them that way."
-- Journal reporter Molly Montag contributed to this report.