YANKTON, S.D. - When birds started falling dead in Yankton on Monday, there was understandable alarm.
There have been several recent mass die-offs of birds in various parts of the United States and even Sweden, and explanations have ranged from some sort of climate change-related cause to the birds running into each other aloft.
But there's an absolute explanation for the Yankton event: The U.S. government poisoned them.
Scattered across the snow along a stretch of Second Street were the frozen bodies of dead starlings. Their bodies were everywhere, according to witnesses like Alison Brown.
"The street where we park and the sidewalks were just covered with them," Brown told the station.
Animal control officers picked up hundreds of birds on Monday, and more then turned up, bringing the total to more than 300.
Brown said she had been wondering if these deaths were connected to other mass animal deaths, like the 5,000 blackbirds killed on New Year's Eve in Arkansas.
"You know, the first thing that comes to mind is all the reports we've seen about the birds and fish," Brown said.
'Like an Alfred Hitchcock'
At first, Yankton Animal Control Officer Lisa Brasel said that the authorities "thought the birds didn't migrate, and got cold and froze to death."
Brasel said she didn't suspect illness because all the starlings were at a good weight and appeared to be, for the most part, healthy.
She planned to send some of the bodies to South Dakota State University for testing, until she got a phone call from officials with the United States Department of Agriculture that solved the mystery.
"They said they had poisoned the birds about 10 miles south of Yankton, and they were surprised they came to Yankton like they did," Brasel told NBC station KTIV of Sioux City, S.D.
USDA wildlife biologist Ricky Woods explained that a large group of starlings was causing problems in a north Nebraska cattle feedlot, eating the feed and leaving waste on both the feed and equipment. So the USDA put out DRC 1339 poison for the birds, Woods said.
"Lethal means are always a last resort," said Woods. "In this situation it's what we had to do."
Brasel said having the answers doesn't make the sight any less creepy. "Kind of like an Alfred Hitchcock," she said
Authorities said that so far starlings were the only birds found dead in Yankton. They said the poisoned birds didn't pose a threat to other animals or humans. Officials estimated nearly 2,000 birds ate the poison.