This is rather interesting...Labs seek clues after 3,000 birds die
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Wildlife experts are trying to solve a mystery
that evoked images of the apocalypse: Why did more than 3,000 red-winged
blackbirds tumble from the Arkansas sky shortly before midnight on New
Scientists are investigating whether bad weather, fireworks or poison
might have forced the birds out of the sky, or if a disoriented bird
simply led the flock into the ground.
"We have a lot more questions," said Karen Rowe, an ornithologist
with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. She said there are
documented cases of birds becoming confused and plunging to earth.
Residents of the small town of Beebe, northeast of Little Rock, awoke
Saturday to find thousands of dead blackbirds littering a
1.5-square-mile area. The birds inexplicably dropped dead, landing on
homes, cars and lawns. Cleanup crews wore protective suits, gas masks
and rubber gloves as they spent the holiday weekend gathering the
The director of Cornell University's ornithology lab in Ithaca, N.Y.,
said the most likely suspect is violent weather. It's probable that
thousands of birds were asleep, roosting in a single tree, when a
"washing machine-type thunderstorm" sucked them up into the air,
disoriented them, and even fatally soaked and chilled them.
"Bad weather can occasionally catch flocks off guard, blow them off a
roost, and they get hurled up suddenly into this thundercloud," lab
director John Fitzpatrick said.
Rough weather had hit the state earlier Friday, but the worst of it
was already well east of Beebe by the time the birds started falling,
said Chris Buonanno, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in
North Little Rock.
If weather was the cause, the birds could have died in several ways,
Fitzpatrick said. They could easily become disoriented -- with no lights
to tell them up and down -- and smack into the ground. Or they could
have died from exposure.
The birds' feathers keep them at a toasty 103 degrees, but "once that
coat gets unnaturally wet, it's only a matter of minutes before they're
done for," Fitzpatrick said.
Regardless of how they died, the birds will not be missed. Large
blackbird roosts like one at Beebe can have thousands of birds that
leave ankle- to knee-deep piles of droppings in places.
Nearly a decade ago, state wildlife officials fired blanks from
shotguns and cannons to move a roost of thousands of blackbirds from
Beebe. In recent years, many of the migratory birds returned.
Red-winged blackbirds are the among North America's most abundant
birds, with somewhere between 100 million and 200 million nationwide,
Fitzpatrick said. Rowe put the number of dead in Beebe at "easily
Bird carcasses were shipped to the Arkansas Livestock and Poultry
Commission and the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis.
Researchers in Georgia also asked for a set of the dead birds. Test
results could be back in a week.
Rowe said many of the birds suffered injuries from striking the
ground, but it was not clear whether they were alive when they hit. A
few grackles and a couple of starlings were also among the dead. Those
species roost with blackbirds, particularly in winter.
Tens of thousands of blackbirds can roost in a single tree. And they
do not see well at night, when they usually sleep, Fitzpatrick said.
Earlier Friday, a tornado killed three people in Cincinnati, Ark.,
about 150 miles away. Then a couple hours before the birds died,
thunderstorms also passed through parts of central Arkansas. Lightning
could have killed the birds directly or startled them to the point that
they became confused. Hail also has been known to knock birds from the
In 2001, lightning killed about 20 mallards at Hot Springs, and a
flock of dead pelicans was found in the woods about 10 years ago, Rowe
said. Lab tests showed that they, too, had been hit by lighting.
Back 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
Rowe and Fitzpatrick said poisoning was possible but unlikely. Rowe
said 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 that night," Rowe said.