Why Did Thousands of Birds Drop Dead in the Arkansas Sky?

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New Year’s Day should be about turning over a new leaf. But for residents of Beebe, Arkansas, January 1, 2011 meant turning over thousands of bird carcasses that had fallen from the sky.

In scenes befitting an apocalyptic thriller, residents woke to find the corpses of at least 1,000 red-winged blackbirds strewn across their lawns, streets and rooftops. An aerial survey revealed that all the avian casualties dropped within a one-mile stretch of town. The bird remains were so concentrated that motorists passing through the area struggled to avoid crushing them.

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The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC) began receiving reports about dead birds at 11:30pm on New Year’s Eve. “I thought the mayor was messing with me when he called me,” Milton McCullar, a town street supervisor, told local television station KATV. “He got me up at 4’oclock in the morning and told me we had birds falling out of the sky.”

The AGFC  dispatched wildlife officer Robby King to the scene as birds continued to drop. He collected 65 corpses which he then sent to the Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission laboratory and the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin for analysis. Necropsies—autopsies for animals—begin January 3.

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Theories to explain the sudden death of the blackbird flock have come thick and fast. Speaking to CNN Radio on January 2, Karen Rowe, an ornithologist for the AGFC, said that the incident isn’t that rare, and is often caused by a lightning strike or high-altitude hail. Initial examinations of the dead birds showed trauma, including head injury. Such trauma could have resulted from something contacting them in the air—or from impact with the ground.

Rowe ruled out poisoning. “It’s important to understand that a sick bird can’t fly. So whatever happened to these birds happened very quickly,” she said. “Something must have caused these birds to flush out of the trees at night, where they’re normally just roosting and staying in the treetops … and then something got them out of the air and caused their death and then they fell to earth.”

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Officials speculated that fireworks set off by New Year’s revelers could have startled the birds from their roost, and caused them to die from stress.

According to the Press Association, workers from the U.S. Environmental Services removed the final bird at 11am on Sunday morning. They estimated that they had collected around 2,000 of the animals. The town’s mayor said that workers wore protective suits as a matter of course and not because they feared contamination.

In Arkansas, death isn’t merely for the birds. On Dec. 30, in an unrelated incident, a tugboat operator discovered a bevy of dead fish along the Arkansas River in Franklin County, around 125 miles northwest of Little Rock. Officials now estimate that around 100,000 drum fish have died along a 20-mile stretch of the river. Disease—not fireworks or stress—appears to be the culprit.

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