4 and 20 blackbirds, and 3,000, dead in the sky


BEEBE, Ark. (AP) — New Year’s revelers in a small Arkansas town were enjoying midnight fireworks when they noticed something other than sparks falling from the sky: thousands of dead blackbirds. The red-winged blackbirds rained out of the darkness onto rooftops and sidewalks and into fields. One struck a woman walking her dog. Another hit a police cruiser. 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.” In all, more than 3,000 birds tumbled to the ground. Scientists said Monday that fireworks appeared to have frightened the birds into such a frenzy that they crashed into homes, cars and each other. Some may have flown straight into the ground. “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.” But Rowe stopped short of declaring the mystery solved, saying labs planned to test bird carcasses for toxins or disease. Another theory was that violent thunderstorms might have disoriented the flock or even just one bird that could have led the group in a fatal plunge to the ground. In an unrelated incident, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission said about 83,000 drum fish washed up along a 17-mile stretch of the Arkansas River last week. The commission said the fish kill appeared to have been caused by disease, but test results will take about a month to come back. With the birds, a few stunned ones survived their fall and stumbled around like drunken revelers. 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. “I turn and look across my yard, and there’s all these lumps,” said Shane Roberts, who thought hail was falling until he saw a dazed blackbird beneath his truck. His 16-year-old daughter, Alex, spent Saturday morning picking them up. “Their legs are really squishy,” the teen 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 birds will not be missed. Large roosts like the one at Beebe can have thousands of birds that leave ankle- to knee-deep piles of droppings in places. On Monday, a few live birds chirped and hopped from tree to tree behind the Roberts’ home. “The whole sky turns black every morning and every night,” Roberts said. At Duke’s home, bird feeders stood empty. He fills them when bluebirds come in the summer but leaves them empty during blackbird season. “They’d eat 50 pounds of feed a day,” he said. “You couldn’t keep them full.” Red-winged blackbirds are the 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 put the number of dead in Beebe at “easily 3,000.” Thousands can roost in one tree. 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. Test results could be back in a week. A few grackles and a couple of starlings were also 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. The injuries were primarily in the breast tissue, with blood clotting and bleeding in the body cavities. Residents heard loud fireworks just before the birds started hitting the ground. “They started going crazy, flying into one another,” Stephens said. The birds apparently also hit homes, trees and other objects, and some could have been killed by flying hard into the ground. 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,” Ballew said. The city allows fireworks only on New Year’s Eve and Independence Day. Bad weather was to blame 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 that they, too, had been hit by lighting. 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 killed three people in Cincinnati, Ark., about 150 miles away, but most of the bad weather was already past 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.