It wasn’t a secret government spraying program, Martians or gas seeping out of the New Madrid fault that killed the 5,000 or so blackbirds that died New Year’s Eve in Beebe, Ark.
It was someone shooting off professional grade fireworks in a residential district, scaring the night-blind birds out of their roost into a 25-mph flight that ran them into houses, signs and even the ground, says Karen Rowe, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission ornithologist.
“They were bouncing off houses, basketball backboards, trucks,” she says.
Rowe made her observations Wednesday as Game and Fish officials got back further results from necropsies on the dead birds. The findings have given Rowe and others enough confidence in their original conclusions that they were having fun with some of the other theories floating about.
Separate bird deaths were also reported this week in Louisiana, where 450 died, and in Kentucky last week, where hundreds more were found dead.
The not-so-mysterious saga began at about 10 p.m. New Year’s Eve in the tiny town of Beebe, about 40 miles northeast of Little Rock.
“Someone shot off 10 to 12 professional-type fireworks near the roost,” she says. Wayne Ballew, Beebe’s chief of police, lives nearby. He reported that they “shook the windows on his house,” she says.
Rowe has talked with residents who live in the neighborhood where the birds were found and they all reported the loud booms at that time.
At that point, the flock, which could easily numbers in the tens of thousands, took to the air.
It was actually composed of both red-winged blackbirds and European starlings, which commonly roost together.
Unfortunately for the birds, both blackbirds and starlings “have extremely limited night vision,” says Robert Meese, an avian ecologist at the University of California-Davis who studies a related blackbird species.
In addition, neighbors were also setting off fireworks and bottle rockets, which further confused the birds who were now madly trying to get back to their safe perches, Rowe says.
“I talked to individuals who were outside when the birds started crashing into things,” she says.After the birds took flight they would have been completely disoriented and flying at a high rate of speed, “most likely about 25 mph, given my experience with their cousins, the tricolored blackbird,” Meese says.
They would have flown up into the air, then back down looking for a safe place to roost.
“This rapid descent of living birds crashing into these multiple obstacles then caused the loud noises reported by the residents of Beebe, especially those that flew into rooftops or walls of houses,” Meese says. “This also accounts for the blunt force trauma to the breasts.”
Perhaps most importantly, Meese says, the spatial distribution of the carcasses on the ground is what would be expected from a flock of blackbirds in flight, relatively close together and not scattered over many miles.
The necropsies performed by the Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission found trauma to the chest, hemorrhages to the chest and the leading edge of the birds’ wings broken, Rowe says.
“What seems like a deep mystery likely is not, and if this had occurred out in the middle of a wheat or corn field instead of in a suburban area, we’d probably never have been aware of it,” Meese says.
State officials originally put the number of birds dead at around 3,000, but a more systematic count, and estimates of those taken by scavengers, puts it closer to 5,000, Rowe says.
The story of dead blackbirds raining down from the sky in a small Arkansas town, hitting as it did on a slow news week, caused a huge stir that still surprises state officials.
“I’m keeping a list of the most bizarre theories,” Rowe says. So far they include:
• Noxious gases seeping out of the nearby New Madrid fault, cause of a massive earthquake in the area in 1812
• Sonic booms
• Fumes from a gas plant in Mississippi
• The government spraying poison over Beebe
And Meese adds these:
• Black helicopters (covert, unmarked military aircraft)
But it’s taught Rowe that she and other wildlife experts need to do a better job of educating the public about the fact that wild animals die all the time. A bird that manages to hatch and leave the nest still has only a 70% chance of making it to its first birthday, she points out.
“Birds don’t go to the bird hospital and get put on life support and die there. They just die. Mother Nature is not a nice lady,” she says.