In 2001, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) proposed a three-year plan to kill 6 million Red-winged Blackbirds in North and South Dakota by setting out poisoned rice to kill them during spring migration. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refused to grant the permits required to kill these birds during spring, when the red-wings are not causing damage. However, during late summer and fall when red-wings are causing damage to crops, farmers are allowed to kill them. This lesson will provide you with background to understand what the problem is and one proposed solution, and will show you how governmental agencies made their decision about it. Students will learn how scientists and governing agencies collect data, determine how serious a problem is, and make decisions about possible solutions.
Now it's the end of July and you're ready for a well-deserved rest. You join a huge flock of blackbirds and set off for a new feeding habitat--fields where you can find seeds to replenish your stores of fat after the hard breeding season and before winter.
Now imagine you're a farmer. This spring and summer you spent hundreds of hours planting a crop and tending to it, and watched it ripen over the summer. The money you will earn from the crop will go to pay your mortgage payment on your house, buy food and clothes for you and your family, and pay for many of your other needs. But just before you're ready to harvest it, in fly thousands of blackbirds. You desperately try to scare them off, but they keep coming back until they've eaten most of your crop. How would you feel?
Blackbird Population Explosion
From 1996 to 1999, the red-winged blackbird population in the Dakotas rose 33%! That's an enormous increase. During spring and the breeding season, even so many redwings don't cause problems for humans because they eat mostly insects. But once the baby blackbirds have fledged, families join huge flocks and switch their diets to grain and seeds. During the day they feed in fields, and they spend the night in thick stands of cattails, in "roosts" that can number over a million birds. Because they do most of their feeding near the roost, farm fields farther than 5 miles from roosts are usually fairly safe from blackbird damage.
How Big Is the Problem?
Every year, sunflower growers throughout the U.S. suffer losses to their crops. On average, they lose
Over most of the nation, loss to blackbirds is negligible, but in North and South Dakota, they lose about 1 - 2% of the crop every year. This sounds negligible, too, but a few farmers lose an enormous portion of their sunflowers. Every year about 500 growers lose more than 25% of their crops to blackbirds. But interestingly, a recent APHIS study estimates that Red-winged Blackbird populations have increased by 33% from 1996 to 1999 while damage to sunflower crops has stayed about the same.
Here are some of the solutions some people have tried or considered:
How the Government Made the Decision
Two U.S. government agencies had important roles in this issue. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is charged with protecting native American birds and other resources, to ensure that they will last for future generations. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is charged with helping farmers to succeed, in order to ensure healthy food supplies for all American. Farmers are allowed to kill blackbirds that are causing damage, if they catch them in the act. The USDA is allowed to poison birds that are causing problems, too. But without permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the USDA is NOT allowed to poison birds that are not causing immediate damage. This red-wing proposal was to bait and kill migrating birds that were not causing damage.
In its findings, the US Fish and Wildlife Service decided against the permits because
Meanwhile, farmers who are losing their crops are strongly petitioning the U.S. Department of Agriculture and APHIS to do something about the blackbird problem, and many of the farmers feel that the only solution is to kill as many blackbirds as possible. The U.S.F&WS continues to conduct studies and may give their approval to some poisoning projects if studies indicate that the blackbirds likely to be killed in these projects are from the same population that feeds in the sunflower fields in fall, that other species are not likely to be killed, and that the project has at least some likelihood of solving the problem.
Try This! Role Playing Game
You might want to start with Journey North's lesson : Exposing All Sides: Guide to Making Informed Opinions.
For this role-playing game, some students as individuals or teams should take the following roles, and research and brainstorm about what their needs and wishes are, and how they could go about getting their way. Then the players must present their viewpoints, and the rest of the class will listen to the different points of view and make a decision about what they'd do to solve the problem. These are the roles. You may add more if you like.
To help students research their roles, they might want to check out:
Discussion and Journaling Questions: