FRANKLIN, N.J. – The black carcasses of dead starlings still pepper the snowy roads and lawns of central New Jersey's rural Griggstown community three days after federal officials used a pesticide to kill as many as 5,000 of the birds.
Many residents were still getting over their shock Monday from the sudden spate of deaths.
Some were unaware that the deaths resulted from an intentional culling and that the pesticide used was harmless to people and pets.
"It was raining birds," said Franklin Township Mayor Brian Levine. "It got people a little anxious."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture called local police last week and the Somerset County Health Department to warn them that a culling program was under way, but there was no notice that dead birds could fall from the sky, Levine said.
"A lot of us are concerned because it's so odd," said Chris Jiamboi, 49, as his vehicle idled along a stretch of road in Griggstown marked with the flattened remains of dead starlings. "There were a lot of them dead in the roads and no one drives fast enough around here to kill a bird. Then they started showing up dead in people's backyards."
Griggstown is a community of small farms, narrow blacktop roads and rural homes about nine miles northeast of Princeton. It's common for residents here to pass deer and pheasants. Until this weekend, it was also common to pass flocks of starlings that numbered in the hundreds.
Carol Bannerman, a USDA spokeswoman, said a bird-specific pesticide called DRC-1339 was used to kill the starlings. It is harmless to people and other animals, she said.
Bannerman said the starlings had to be killed because they were plaguing an area farm, where they were eating feed meant for cattle and chickens and defecating in feeding bowls.
Federal employees dispensed the pesticide on Friday. Birds that ingest it usually die within three days, Bannerman said, so the die-off should have run its course by Monday.
The DRC-1339 pesticide is commonly used to protect farms and feedlot operations from European starlings, which are considered an invasive species by the USDA. One hundred starlings brought to the U.S. in 1890 have grown into the nation's most numerous bird species, Bannerman said.
In large numbers, starlings can pose a disease threat to livestock.
The poison used is not specific to starlings, Bannerman said, but USDA workers closely monitor its application to make sure it targets only the intended bird population. Workers first lure the birds to a designated area with bait food in wooden trays. Once they are certain the bait has attracted the birds they want to cull, they mix poison with the bait pellets.
However, 75-year-old George Gibson of Griggstown said that to him and many of neighbors they were just beautiful birds.
"People around here are really worried," said Gibson. "They should have told us what they were going to do because we have pets. One guy's dog was chewing on the dead birds and we didn't know what kind of diseases they had died from."
A garbage bag filled with more than 100 dead starlings sat next to the curb of a neighboring home. Gibson said another neighbor gathered up more than 150 carcasses in her yard.
The DRC-1339 pesticide is not harmful to pets, according to the USDA, which notified state and local agencies before dispensing the poison. A dog would have to eat nothing but poisoned starlings for three months to suffer any ill effects from it, according to Bannerman.
She said birds typically roost near the farms where they feed. In this case, the farm had become a feeding station for starlings throughout the surrounding area. That's why the die-off was so public.
"We've very sorry that it played out the way that it did," Bannerman said. She said the USDA will try to do a better job of notifying the public in the future.