2009 May: Henderson (WA) Hundreds of dead birds. Pesticide: Fenthion

Spray blamed for new bird deaths

The Australian June 1 2009

BIRDS are again dropping dead from the sky in a new toxic drama in Western Australia.

Nearly 200 ibises, ravens, gulls, ducks and a pelican were found dead or frothing and convulsing in Perth at the weekend.

The discovery comes a year after the mysterious mass death of 200 birds only a few kilometres away and two years after the Esperance lead contamination scandal which emptied the skies over the holiday town of Esperance for months when thousands of birds were poisoned.

The Department of Environment and Conservation yesterday blamed the latest deaths on the pesticide Fenthion, but said it was unclear whether it was a deliberate bird poisoning or had been caused by someone illegally dumping pesticide.

The dead and dying birds were found at a rubbish tip and in pools of water at a neighbouring quarry site in the southern suburb of Henderson.

DEC pollution response manager Ken Raine said samples had been taken from waterways to check for contamination and the rubbish tip had been covered with sand while investigations were continuing.

Fenthion is a broad-spectrum organophosphorus insecticide used to control horticultural pests such as fruit fly and aphids as well as mosquitoes and other insects.

It is an active ingredient in a number of products sold at hardware stores, including fly baits and fruit fly sprays. It was not known yesterday how much poison would have been needed to cause so many deaths.

A DEC spokeswoman said if the birds were deliberately poisoned it was an offence under the Wildlife Conservation Act, with fines of up to $4000 for each bird species affected. Illegal dumping of pesticides was covered by the Environmental Protection Act.

People have been warned not to touch any dead birds they find, although Mr Raine said he did not believe there was a threat to human health.

“Fenthion is moderately toxic to mammals, but highly toxic to birds and insects. Secondary poisoning of predators is possible,” he said.

“Now that we know what caused the deaths, DEC’s regional officers will investigate further to determine the source.”

In July, 200 seagulls died in Henderson and the neighbouring beach suburb of Woodman Point, sparking a major investigation. Authorities conducted dozens of autopsies and sent samples to laboratories across Australia but no cause of death was established.

In 2007, a catastrophic bird kill in Esperance, 725km southeast of Perth, silenced the dawn chorus for months when up to 10,000 wattle birds, yellow-throated miners, honeyeaters and other species died. The drama was the first warning of a lead contamination scandal which was later found to have caused dangerously high lead levels in children.