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Downtown Austin shut down after bird deaths

Police shut down 10 blocks of businesses in the heart of downtown early Monday after dozens of birds were found dead in the streets, but officials said preliminary tests showed no dangerous chemicals in the air.
Discarded Haz Mat clothing
Workers in Austin, Texas, place disinfectant near discarded protective clothing on Congress Avenue on Monday. Police shut down 10 blocks in the heart of downtown after dozens of dead birds were found. Harry Cabluck / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Police shut down 10 blocks in downtown Austin for several hours Monday after 63 birds were found dead in the street, but officials said preliminary tests found no threat to people.

Workers in yellow hazardous-materials suits tested for contaminants in a cordoned-off section near the state Capitol and the governor’s mansion before authorities finally gave the all-clear in the afternoon.

Although officials could not immediately determine whether poison or something else killed the birds, “there’s no threat to humans at this point,” said Assistant City Manager Michael McDonald.

The dead grackles, sparrows and pigeons will be tested.

Some experts said the most likely cause of the die-off was a deliberate poisoning. “It happens quite frequently,” said Greg Butcher, director of bird conservation at the National Audubon Society in Washington.

Grackles are a crowlike bird regarded as a major pest in Texas, with Austin sidewalks sometimes covered in their droppings.

The dead birds were found overnight along Congress Avenue, a major downtown thoroughfare. Police closed the route through downtown and two side streets, and a staging area was set up near the Capitol, with dozens of fire trucks, police cars and ambulances.

The Capitol opened on schedule, however, and the governor was not asked to leave the mansion.

Dr. Adolfo Valadez, medical director for the Austin and Travis County Health and Human Services Division, said the birds will be tested for signs of poison or viral infections. But officials do not believe bird flu is involved.

It could be days or weeks before a cause is determined, he said.

The warning was lifted a little more than an hour later after emergency crews contained the leak of the colorless liquid, which has an amomonia-like odor and can cause skin and nasal irritation, and possible damage to the kidneys and liver.

The Austin street closures were not the only public health concern in Texas on Monday. In the Houston suburb of Sugar Land, authorities asked people to stay indoors with windows closed after a chemical release at an industrial plant. Ethylenediamine was released into the air while a tanker truck was unloading at a division of Nalco Co.

Three employees were sent to a hospital and about a dozen others were treated on the scene.

On the East Coast, . It wasn’t immediately clear what had caused the odor, and it dissipated fairly quickly. No injuries or damage to wildlife was immediately reported.