Lightning suspected in massive bird kill

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 tumbling out of the darkness to the ground.

Assistant State Veterinarian Dr. Brandon Doss examines dead red-winged blackbirds at the Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission Diagnostic Laboratory in Little Rock

Assistant State Veterinarian Dr. Brandon Doss examines dead red-winged blackbirds at the Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission Diagnostic Laboratory in Little Rock

BEEBE, Ark. — 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 tumbling out of the darkness to the ground.

The red-winged blackbirds rained onto rooftops and sidewalks and into fields. One struck a woman walking her dog.

In Beebe, a community of 5,000 northeast of Little Rock, birds were “littering the streets, the yards, the driveways, everywhere,” said Robby King, a county wildlife officer. “It was hard to drive down the street in some places without running over them.”

In all, more than 3,000 birds inexplicably dropped dead. Now scientists are investigating whether bad storms, fireworks or poison might have brought the flock down, or if a disoriented bird simply led the group into the ground.

A few stunned birds survived the fall and stumbled around like drunken revelers. There was little light across the countryside, save for the glimmer of fireworks and some lightning.

For some people, the scene 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.”

No one knows for sure why the flock died.

“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.

The director of Cornell University’s ornithology lab in Ithaca, New York, 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 smashed into the ground. Or they could have died from exposure.

The birds’ feathers keep them at a toasty 103 degrees (40 Celsius), 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 the 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 3,000.”

Bird carcasses were shipped to the Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission and the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin Researchers at the University of Georgia’s wildlife disease study group 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, Arkansas, about 150 miles (250 kilometres) 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 sky.

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 the sky.

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 neighbourhood that night was able to get a fresh snack that night,” Rowe said.

The birds were the second mass wildlife death in Arkansas in recent days.

Last week, several thousand dead drum fish washed up along a 20-mile (30-kilometre) stretch of the Arkansas River, about 100 miles (160 kilometres) west of Beebe. Wildlife officials say the fish deaths are not related to the dead birds, and that because only one species of fish was affected, it is likely they were stricken by an illness.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange says she has not received an official request from any other school board for a similar move to online learning. (Advocate file photo)
’Operational pressures:’ Calgary schools shift to at-home learning for grades 7 to 12

School boards can ask to move online for a number of reasons

Russian President Vladimir Putin visits the Coordination Center of the Russian Government in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, April 13, 2021. The centre was set up as a line of communication with the whole of Russia for analysing and collecting information, promptly using big data and solving arising problems. (Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Months after hack, US poised to announce sanctions on Russia

First retaliatory action against the Kremlin for last year’s hack

FILE - NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman speaks during the “Topping Off” ceremony of the New York Islanders new home, the UBS Arena at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., Friday, Oct. 9, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Mary Altaffer
Islanders close to selling out inaugural season at UBS Arena

Arena capacity of about 17,000 for hockey

An Uber Eats delivery person carries items near the Japan National Stadium, where opening ceremony and other events are planned for postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympics, with engravings in honor of 1964 Tokyo Olympics seen on the side of the stadium wall behind the fence Tuesday, April 6, 2021, in Tokyo. Two top officials of Japan’s ruling LDP party on Thursday, April 15, 2021, said radical changes could be coming to the Tokyo Olympics. One went as far to suggest they still could be canceled, and the other that even if they proceed, it might be without any fans.(AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
Officials say Olympic cancellation, no fans still an option

COVID-19 cases have been rising across Japan

FILE - In this Jan. 24, 2020 file photo, co-directors Jim LeBrecht, left, and Nicole Newnham, center, from the documentary “Crip Camp” pose with film subject Judith Heumann during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. The disabled have a moment in the Oscar spotlight that they hope becomes a movement. LeBrecht, who has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair, says a golden age for disabled films could come if Hollywood lets them tell their own stories. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP, File)
The disabled hope their Oscar moment can become a movement

Traditionally the disabled appear only when an actor seeking an Oscar-worthy role plays one on screen

FILE - Diane Warren poses for a portrait at the 90th Academy Awards Nominees Luncheon on Feb. 5, 2018, in Beverly Hills, Calif. Warren is nominated for an Oscar for best original song for her work in “The Life Ahead” starring Sophia Loren. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP, File)
12-time Oscar nominee Diane Warren hopes for ‘awesome’ win

Third movie adaptation of the 1975 Romain Gary novel ‘The Life Before Us’

opinion
Opinion: Waiting 4 months between vaccine doses too long

“It’s not just a matter of potency, it’s a matter of the… Continue reading

Richie Laryea of Toronto FC, left, and Jean Meneses of Mexico's Leon battle for the ball during a CONCACAF Champions League soccer match in Leon, Mexico, in Leon, Wednesday, April 7, 2021. Toronto FC hosts Club Leon in the second leg of their Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League round-of-16 tie holding a valuable away goal after a 1-1 draw last week in Mexico. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Mario Armas
Injury-riddled Toronto FC dispatches Club Leon in CONCACAF Champions League play

Injury-riddled Toronto FC dispatches Club Leon in CONCACAF Champions League play

Winnipeg Jets' Dylan DeMelo (2) skates the puck around Ottawa Senators' Thomas Chabot (72) as he holds off Winnipeg Jets' Mason Appleton (22) during first-period NHL action in Ottawa on Wednesday, April 14, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Winnipeg Jets score two third-period goals to secure 3-2 victory over Ottawa Senators

Winnipeg Jets score two third-period goals to secure 3-2 victory over Ottawa Senators

Toronto Raptors forward Chris Boucher (25) shoots over San Antonio Spurs forward Keldon Johnson (3) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, April 14, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Anunoby, Siakam rally Raptors past Spurs 117-112

Anunoby, Siakam rally Raptors past Spurs 117-112

Most Read