Federal program allows killing of 500,000 protected migratory birds a year


© Mike Baird/ Wikimedia Commons
Double-crested Cormorant in breeding plumage in Morro Bay, CA

Being a bird of "conservation concern" or even the oldest bird species on the continent is not enough to avoid being slaughtered under a little-known federal program that authorizes the killing of half a million birds a year.

The Center for Investigative Reporting's Reveal looked into the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's "depredation permit" program, which allows businesses, farmers and others to kill members of more than 300 species of migratory birds each year. The body count during a recent three-year period totaled 1.6 million birds, or just over 500,000 a year.

Two-thirds of all the birds killed were brown-headed cowbirds, red-winged blackbirds, common grackles and Canada geese. The rest of those killed included upland sandpipers, barn owls, wood ducks, lesser yellowlegs, snowy owls, roseate spoonbills, curlew sandpipers, red-throated loons, great blue herons, white and brown pelicans, cedar waxwings, robins, belted kingfishers, mourning doves, red-tailed hawks, American kestrels, turkey vultures, mallard ducks and sandhill cranes, North America's oldest bird species

Some of the birds "are struggling to cope with habitat loss, climate change and other threats and are classified by the government as 'birds of conservation concern,'" according to Reveal's Rachael Bale and Tom Knudson. "These include upland sandpipers, lesser yellowlegs, roseate spoonbills and red-throated loons, who, because of declining populations, could be on their way to the endangered species list."

Birds are killed under the program to protect farm fields, vineyards, air traffic, golf courses, pistachio orchards, landfills, fish farms, zoos, aquariums and other locations, according to the investigation.

Most recently, a federal judge in Portland, Ore., denied a motion to try to stop the killing of more than 10,000 double-crested cormorants in the Columbia River estuary. The Army Corps of Engineers justified the bird-kill, saying the cormorants eat millions of juvenile salmonids each year, thus endangering the annual salmon run.

Bob Sallinger, conservation director with Audubon Society of Portland, said the agencies' own calculations have shown the planned killing could drive the western populations of double-crested cormorants below sustainable levels.

"We are very disappointed in the court's decision," Sallinger said in a statement May 8, according to the Chinook Observer. "For the 3,489 cormorants that are scheduled to be shot and 9,368 active nests the Corps plans to oil, destroy or starve, the losses will absolutely be irreversible."