4 and 20 blackbirds, and 4,000, dead in the sky

Jan 03, 2011 By JEANNIE NUSS , Associated Press
Cindy Bryant and her husband Stephen examine one of the thousands of dead birds that fell from the sky between 11 p.m. New Years Eve and early New Years Day near their home in Beebe, Ark. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission said Saturday more than 1,000 dead black birds fell from the sky in Beebe. The agency said its enforcement officers began receiving reports about the dead birds about 11:30 p.m. Friday. (AP Photo/The Daily Citizen, Warren Watkins) RETRANSMISSION FOR LARGER FILE.

(AP) -- Celebratory fireworks likely sent thousands of discombobulated blackbirds into such a tizzy that they crashed into homes, cars and each other before plummeting to their deaths in central Arkansas, scientists say. Still, officials acknowledge it's unlikely they'll ever pinpoint a cause with certainty.

So for the small town of Beebe, Ark., where New Year's revelers spent the holiday weekend cleaning up between 4,000 and 5,000 dead red-winged blackbirds, The Mystery of Why the Birds Fell Out of the Sky remains unsolved.

Some speculated that a bout of bad weather was to blame. Others said one confused bird could have led the group in a fatal plunge. A few spooked schoolkids even guessed that the birds had committed mass suicide.


Follow up story: Birds fall from sky again, this time in Louisiana
"There was probably some physical reason, but I doubt anyone will ever know what it was," said Thurman Booth, the state's wildlife services director.

The birds were the second mass wildlife death in Arkansas in recent days. Last week, about 83,000 dead and dying drum fish washed up along a 20-mile stretch of the Arkansas River, about 100 miles west of Beebe. Wildlife officials say the fish deaths are not related to the dead birds, and that because mainly one species of fish was affected, it is likely they were stricken by an illness. Full test results could take up to a month.

Some 360 miles to the south of Beebe, Louisiana state biologists were investigating a similar bird die-off. The Advocate reported that about 500 red-winged blackbirds and starlings fell from the sky Monday in Point Coupee Parish, near the city of Labarre. It was not immediately clear if the mysterious mass bird deaths were linked.

While officials examine bird carcasses in Arkansas for signs of disease and labs test the contents of their stomachs for toxins, the tale of the blackbirds' tumble is quickly turning into the stuff of local legend.

The blackbirds rained onto rooftops and sidewalks and into fields. One struck a woman walking her dog. Another hit a police cruiser. Some say an umbrella was one resident's only protection from the falling birds.

Birds were "littering the streets, the yards, the driveways, everywhere," said Robby King, a county wildlife officer in Beebe, a community of 5,000 northeast of Little Rock. "It was hard to drive down the street in some places without running over them."

A few stunned survivors stumbled around like drunken partiers.

There was little light across the countryside at the time, save for the glimmer of fireworks and some lightning on the horizon. In the tumult, many birds probably lost their bearings.

"The blackbirds were flying at rooftop level instead of treetop level" to avoid explosions above, said Karen Rowe, an ornithologist with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. "Blackbirds have poor eyesight, and they started colliding with things."

Shane Roberts said it sounded like hail pelting his house.

"I turn and look across my yard, and there's all these lumps," Roberts said.

His 16-year-old daughter, Alex, spent Saturday morning picking them up with her bare hands. "Their legs are really squishy," she said.

For some people, the scene unfolding shortly before midnight evoked images of the apocalypse and cut short New Year's celebrations. Many families phoned police instead of popping champagne.

"I think the switchboard lit up pretty good," said Beebe police Capt. Eddie Cullum. "For all the doomsdayers, that was definitely the end of the world."

Paul Duke filled three five-gallon buckets with dead birds on New Year's Day. "They were on the roof of the house, in the yard, on the sidewalks, in the street," said Duke, a suspension supervisor at a nearby school. A few dead birds still littered town streets Monday. The city hired an environmental company that got rid of the dead birds. The disposal company declined to talk to reporters.

The birds will not be missed. Large roosts like the one at Beebe can have thousands of birds in one tree that leave ankle- to knee-deep piles of droppings in places.

"The whole sky turns black every morning and every night," Roberts said, as a few live birds chirped and hopped from tree to tree behind his home.

Red-winged blackbirds are among North America's most abundant birds, with somewhere between 100 million and 200 million nationwide, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y.

Rowe said Tuesday that between 4,000 and 5,000 birds had died in Beebe. That's up from initial estimates of 3,000, she said, because hungry cats and dogs likely snatched up lots of carcasses overnight.

The Game and Fish Commission shipped carcasses to the Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission and the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis. Researchers at the University of Georgia's wildlife disease study group also asked for a set of birds.

A few grackles and a couple of starlings also were among the dead. Those species roost with blackbirds, particularly in winter.

"They died from massive trauma," said Game and Fish Commission spokesman Keith Stephens, citing a report from the state poultry lab where the birds were examined.

Residents heard loud fireworks just before the birds started hitting the ground.

"They started going crazy, flying into one another," Stephens said.

The area where the birds fell is too large to determine if any specific blast rousted the birds, Police Chief Wayne Ballew said.

"It was New Year's Eve night. Everybody and their brother was shooting fireworks," the chief said. The city allows fireworks only on New Year's Eve and Independence Day.

Bad weather has been blamed for earlier bird kills in Arkansas.

In 2001, lightning killed dozens of mallards at Hot Springs, and a flock of dead pelicans was found in the woods about 10 years ago, Rowe said. Lab tests showed they, too, had been hit by lightning.

In 1973, hail knocked birds from the sky at Stuttgart, Ark., on the day before hunting season. Some of the birds were caught in a violent storm's updrafts and became encased in ice before falling from the sky. Some were described as bowling balls with feathers.

Earlier Friday, a tornado had killed three people in Cincinnati, Ark., about 150 miles away, but most of the bad weather had passed Beebe when the birds died.

Rowe initially said poisoning was possible, but unlikely. Birds of prey and other animals, including dogs and cats, ate several of the dead birds and suffered no ill effects.

"Every dog and cat in the neighborhood that night was able to get a fresh snack," Rowe said.

Explore further: Dwindling wind may tip predator-prey balance

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User comments : 18

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thales
not rated yet Jan 03, 2011
Weird. NPR has some good takes on the dead birds and fish:

http://n.pr/dHg6Q0
TheGhostofOtto1923
1.4 / 5 (11) Jan 03, 2011
A few other things are going on in the area: the 100k drum fish kill in the arkansas river and the 500+ earthquake swarm in Guy:
http
://geology.com/news/2010/earthquake-swarm-near-guy-arkansas.shtml

-which some blame on gas drilling, fracturing, and wastewater injection in the Fayetteville shale field.
http
://oilshalegas.com/fayettevilleshale.html

-This field runs through the same area that these phenomena are occuring. Perhaps unanticipated outgassing is killing wildlife and causing officials to sweat?
rethinker
not rated yet Jan 03, 2011
Seem like it could be simply that someone let off some fireworks near the nesting area. Then the Red Winged Blackbirds spooked. Meanwhile the next rocket launched and the two collided right dead in the paths of each other.
ChiRaven
4.5 / 5 (2) Jan 03, 2011
I think the flock was just out partying, didn't realize how sneaky champaign really was, or how terribly badly it would combine with high-altitude flying, and ...

They'd been WARNED not to drink and fly!
flying_finn
not rated yet Jan 03, 2011
@rethinker;
Heard that they use cannons for celebration. Blackbirds roost at night and have poor night vision. They may have flown into trees and buildings causing internal damage. Makes sense since it was a localized event.
Jonseer
1 / 5 (1) Jan 03, 2011
Knee deep bird droppings. This cannot be true, because such quantity would be worth a fortune and too easy to harvest - for fertilizer.

rethinker
not rated yet Jan 03, 2011
@rethinker;
Heard that they use cannons for celebration. Blackbirds roost at night and have poor night vision. They may have flown into trees and buildings causing internal damage. Makes sense since it was a localized event.

yes flyin finn I believe it could be the cause. Not looking to good for us.

You know something, In the spring I've see Red Winged blackbirds way up north where I now live. I used to see them all the time in Indiana. However in NH when they pass through, they have a way of hiding the red on their wings by pulling their wings forward.
It looks like they try to disguise themselves while in common black bird territory. Has anyone ever seen this?
dtxx
1 / 5 (1) Jan 03, 2011
These must teh rapture and be the end times!! (for that particular population of blackbirds) It MUST be!!!!!
rethinker
not rated yet Jan 04, 2011
Don't be foolish
more like it is the end of you posting such nonsense
CarolinaScotsman
not rated yet Jan 04, 2011
Exactly how many flocks of birds have succumbed to fireworks since the Chinese invented fireworks over a thousand years ago? No record of it you say? Then why do they think this was fireworks? By the way, a few years ago, the Game and Fish Commission used firework cannons to scare the birds away. No deaths reported then.
Skeptic_Heretic
not rated yet Jan 04, 2011
Seem like it could be simply that someone let off some fireworks near the nesting area. Then the Red Winged Blackbirds spooked. Meanwhile the next rocket launched and the two collided right dead in the paths of each other.
We would have seen it every 4th of July if that was the case, and the effects wouldn't have been almost instant and over such a short timeframe.
Skeptic_Heretic
5 / 5 (3) Jan 04, 2011
So it appears that this isn't really an odd occurance in this area. Since the 70's there have been 20 or so occurances of massive blackbird death of this nature, typically due to starvation, cold fronts, or disease. That may invalidate the natural gas link, otto. These carcasses appear to have internal injuries that led to clotting before death. That is expected from a snap frost event. Interesting, but not unusual from what I can see.
By the way, a few years ago, the Game and Fish Commission used firework cannons to scare the birds away.
And that was during the day. Perhaps the fireworks hypothesis is correct, blackbirds don't have great night vision as far as we can tell. Perhaps they flew into the various trees and so forth causing the trauma and death. In any event, very interesting.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (9) Jan 04, 2011
I think the flock was just out partying, didn't realize how sneaky champaign really was, or how terribly badly it would combine with high-altitude flying, and ...

They'd been WARNED not to drink and fly!
There have been no reports of little puddles of bird puke as far as I know-
That may invalidate the natural gas link, otto.
:) Damned strange... These events all seem to be centered around a town named Clinton... not very far at all from Mena...
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (8) Jan 04, 2011
I dunno, its getting a little more complicated:
http
://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE7034DG20110104

"The Louisiana report comes days after some 5,000 birds, mostly red-winged blackbirds, fell from the sky in Beebe, Arkansas on New Year's Eve."
flying_finn
not rated yet Jan 04, 2011
://www.nwhc.usgs.gov/mortality_events/ongoing.jsp

Was surprised to see so many bird deaths being tracked. Not too many over 100.
rethinker
not rated yet Jan 05, 2011
[/qWe would have seen it every 4th of July if that was the case, and the effects wouldn't have been almost instant and over such a short timeframe./]

Another (maybe too simple) answer to that is most fireworks are not shot off in bird nesting areas. Most people including the Chinese respect animals and would likely do the fireworks over water, May be why the drum fish hopped out of the h20. Know the feeling---BANG RIGHT NEXT TO YOUR BED?!
rethinker
not rated yet Jan 05, 2011

rethinker
not rated yet Jan 06, 2011
BEEBE, Ark. —
Preliminary lab results show the blackbirds that fell from the sky in central Arkansas died from blunt force trauma.

That supports the theory that fireworks on New Year's Eve spooked the birds and sent them flying into cars, houses and each other and plummeting to their deaths.

The Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis., released the results Wednesday.

Arkansas' Game and Fish Commission says the birds didn't test positive for any pesticides. Officials are still awaiting lab results from tests for other toxins and infectious diseases.