Thirty-four dead blackbirds were found in the Tahoe Keys in January, the victim of strychnine poisoning, according to Cheryl Millham of Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care.
When El Dorado County Animal Services responded to the scene on Jan. 28 they picked up 35 of the Brewer’s blackbirds. One of the birds, still alive but convulsing and unable to fly away, was taken to the wildlife rehabilitation center for treatment.
“The minute I got the bird, I initiated fluids to try to thin out any poison in the system and then set it up with food and water,” Millham said.
“Any time I would come into the area he was in he would go into more seizures, but after about five days they were really mild. After that we gave him time to recuperate and were able to let him go.”
In early February, the blackbird was taken for release to the home of Bob Dietz, a Tahoe Keys resident and co-founder of Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care who has been feeding a flock of Brewer’s blackbirds this winter.
“Within four minutes after he released the bird, it flew up to the tree, puffed up, preened itself, and five other blackbirds rejoined him in the tree,” Millham said.
State wildlife officials identified strychnine as the birds’ cause of death. The poison is in commonly available and used to kill rats and gophers.
“The instructions on the can of strychnine is to put it down the holes of rodents. It’s a poison you can pick up anywhere to kill gophers and rats, and you put it down into the burrows, you don’t cast it out on the ground,” Millham said.
Millham suspects the poison was cast out onto the ground and that the birds ingested it relatively close to where they were found.
“It’s nice to think it was not intentional, but I don’t know how someone can read the directions on a can so poorly,” she said.
Millham said she is glad El Dorado County Animal Services responded as quickly as it did to pick up the dead birds. “Any cat or dog or hawk, anything eating those birds would get secondary poisoning,” she said.
The incident remains under investigation by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the El Dorado County Department of Agriculture.
“One thing I would stress is that strychnine is illegal to put on the top of the ground. You have to put it inside gopher burrows. When it’s put on the top of the ground it has the ability to poison wildlife and pets,” said Stella McMillin, an environmental scientist with California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Charlene Carveth, the agricultural commissioner for El Dorado County, said improper use of pesticides is punishable by an administrative civil penalty. Deliberately using pesticides to kill wildlife would be a criminal act.
“The hard part with this, it is fairly fast-acting, but the birds could have flown in from five to 10 miles away. At this point we’re kind of guessing it may have occurred in the Keys,” she said.
While continuing to investigate the incident, Carveth said her department also plans to undertake a public education campaign on the proper use of pesticides. Anyone with information about the incident is encouraged to call the El Dorado County Department of Agriculture at 530-621-5520.