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Insecticide and bird deaths coincidental, Modesto and county officials believe

Residents of Elmwood Avenue just north of downtown reported receiving notices that the insecticide Malice was applied to trees there. They also found as many as a couple dozen dead finches on lawns and in the street. A pet cat sniffs at one of the birds, which had been run over by a vehicle.
Residents of Elmwood Avenue just north of downtown reported receiving notices that the insecticide Malice was applied to trees there. They also found as many as a couple dozen dead finches on lawns and in the street. A pet cat sniffs at one of the birds, which had been run over by a vehicle. jfarrow@modbee.com

Residents on and near the 200 block of Elmwood Avenue found notices from the city of Modesto’s Forestry Division on Thursday that the insecticide Malice had been applied around the bases of certain trees there.

By various neighbors’ counts, they also found between 15 and 20-plus finches lying dead in lawns and in the street.

The city, county and state are investigating, but the initial belief is that there’s an absence of Malice in the bird deaths.

After consulting with the Stanislaus County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office, Kelly Gallagher, operations manager of the city’s Public Works Department, said the deaths and the chemical’s presence appear coincidental.

The birds were reported in just a tiny fraction of the city areas that were treated with Malice on Thursday, he said. Also, the ag commissioner’s office reviewed the Malice product label with the city, “and the product shows no warning of danger to birds, and the active ingredient would not be toxic to birds in the quantity we’re applying it,” Gallagher said.

Malice – active ingredient imidacloprid – has been used by the city for years without incident, he said. It’s being applied not as a spray but a “soil drench we’re doing around the base of trees,” Gallagher said. “It’s a systemic material that goes through roots. We usually do applications before a rain or irrigation, and we’re supposed to get rain next week, so the trees will suck it up.

The trees being targeted are Dutch elm, crepe myrtle and other varieties susceptible to aphid infestation, which leads to honeydew secretions that fall on cars and other surfaces.

Agricultural Commissioner Milton O’Haire said the city provided dead bird samples that will be picked up by the California Department of Fish & Wildlife for examination. Testing will evaluate any disease component that may be involved in the bird deaths and look to rule out any pesticide issue, he said.

“We don’t know what caused the incident but hopefully we will get to the bottom of it soon,” O’Haire said. “As far as we know, the pesticide was used properly. We checked with the applicators ... and it appears everything was done properly.”

Elmwood resident John Campopiano said he found nearly two dozen birds while out walking. Most were in just a couple of yards on the 200 block, but he also found a scattered few elsewhere on Elmwood, two on Magnolia Avenue and one on Wright Street. The small, colorful birds had arrived in the neighborhood just a couple of days back, he said.

Another Elmwood resident Jacob Weiler, said he came home Thursday to find four birds dead on the pavement of his home, two to three more in the yard, and a couple that were dying.

He said it sounds reasonable that disease could be the cause, because all the birds were the same species. He also said there’s been a much higher amount of bird droppings in the area than usual. “That has happened before, but it made me wonder this time if what happened to the birds caused them to defecate a lot,” Weiler said.

He said Friday that all of the birds he’d seen have been removed.

Gallagher said people who find a dead bird should not pick it up with bare hands. Dispose of the bird by putting it in a plastic bag in a garbage can.

Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327

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