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article imageArkansas bird expert discusses blackbird deaths on New Year’s Eve Special

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By Kay Mathews     Jan 5, 2011 in Environment
An estimated 5,000 red-winged blackbirds fell from the sky only days ago in Beebe, AR, and Karen Rowe, an ornithologist with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, discusses the incident and offers a possible explanation.
As reported on DigitalJournal.com, "The birds, which were almost all dead when spotted, began falling around 11:30 p.m. on December 31 in Beebe."
An Arkansas Game and Fish Commission press release issued on Jan. 1 indicated that "The blackbirds fell over a one-mile area in the city" and that 65 dead birds were collected for the purpose of sending them to the "Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission lab and the National Wildlife Health Center lab in Madison, Wis."
As wildlife officials and the public waited for lab results, the Hitchcockesque mystery generated a lot of speculation as to what caused thousands of birds to fall from the sky.
Initially, Karen Rowe, an AGFC ornithologist, suggested that the "flock could have been hit by lightning or high-altitude hail," but, said Rowe, "a necropsy is the only way to determine if the birds died from trauma or toxin."
The AGFC also indicated that "Another scenario may have been that New Year’s Eve revelers shooting off fireworks in the area may have startled the birds from their roost."
In order to address the speculation that fireworks may have been a cause of the birds' deaths, this reporter asked Rowe, who is a Certified Wildlife Biologist and Bird Conservation Program Coordinator for the Wildlife Management Division of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, to describe how fireworks could cause the deaths of birds.
Rowe learned from the Beebe police chief that "a series of large professional-type fireworks went off in the subdivision around 10 p.m. Apparently, they flushed the blackbirds from the roost. Observers said they saw the flocks of blackbirds flying through the subdivision about 15 minutes later and said the birds were flying just the same way they fly up high...in a flock all going the same direction."
The distinction, however, is that the birds were "flying at roof top level," said Rowe. "Observers said that the birds started crashing into houses and other structures as well as cars, mailboxes and shrubbery. Some were stunned and others were dead."
Rowe stated, "Necropsy results showed trauma on the breasts and heads, which is consistent with flying into objects rather than just falling to the ground."
The results that Rowe referred to, according to a Jan. 3 press release issued by the AGFC, came from the Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission Veterinary Diagnostic Lab and showed "that red-winged blackbirds died from massive trauma on New Year’s Eve. The trauma was primarily in breast tissue, with blood clots in the body cavity and internal bleeding. All major organs were normal and the birds appeared to be healthy. Gizzards and stomachs of the birds were empty."
Nwaonline [subscription required] noted that "Authorities now are theorizing that extremely loud noises likely startled the birds that had been roosting near Beebe’s Windwood subdivision, causing them to fly into the darkness and crash into objects" and quoted Rowe as saying, "Worsening the situation, blackbirds are flocking creatures with poor night vision. They will follow [each other] just like a school of fish."
According to nwaoline, one of the observers who spoke with Rowe was Mike Overstreet, a resident of the Windwood neighborhood in Beebe. Overstreet told nwaonline that on New Year's Eve, between 5 and 6 p.m., he noticed “swarms of blackbirds ... coming over to our neighborhood. Any direction you could look, it was just a black wave of birds. ... It lasted for well over an hour.”
Overstreet thought the "birds went to roost in a wooded area nearby" and described hearing "10 or 12 loud noises" just afteer 10 p.m. “I would almost call them explosions,” he told nwaonline. “They were extremely loud, almost window-rattling loud.”
Only moments later, Overstreet saw what Rowe relayed to this reporter, "the birds started crashing into houses and other structures as well as cars, mailboxes and shrubbery."
Red-winged blackbird
Red-winged blackbird
Kelly Martin
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The Jan. 3 AGFC press release stated, "The AGFC flew over the area in a helicopter to gauge the scope of the event. No dead birds were found outside of the initial area of fallen birds."
While the birds' deaths may have been confined to a specific area within Beebe, the event was not confined to Arkansas. Only days later, as reported in DigitalJournal.com, "hundreds of blackbirds and starlings were discovered dead and dying in Louisiana."
However, as reported by the Associated Press, "Louisiana's state wildlife veterinarian Jim LaCour said Tuesday, 'I haven't found anything to link the two at this point.'"
The "coincidence" of dead birds in Louisiana is attributed to them hitting power lines. "The birds — a mixed flock of red-winged blackbirds, brown-headed cowbirds, grackles and starlings — may have hit a power line or vehicles in the dark," LaCour said.
As in Arkansas, Lousiana officials have sent bird carcasses to the National Wildlife Health Center lab in Madison, Wis. and elsewhere in order to conclusively understand the cause of the birds' deaths.
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