Birds Falling From the Sky

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Seems like every time there is an unusual event, conspiracy theorists and their ilk come up with farfetched explanations. Science generally operates on the principle that the simplest explanation is generally the right one. There is no need to invoke ideas like changes in the earth’s magnetic field, toxic gases, black holes, radio waves, or secret weapons to explain the thousands of birds that fell from the skies on New Year’s Eve in Beebe, Arkansas a few years ago. Lightning, hail, disease, or malnutrition are more reasonable guesses, but apparently not correct either.

Many birds such as these Red-winged Blackbirds spend the winter in large flocks for safety and foraging. At night they find a place to roost together and rarely fly in the dark. Between winter weather and the scarcity of food, birds are in a fragile state. Add to that New Year’s Eve fireworks. The birds are frightened and stressed, fly out from their roosting sites, unable to see well in the dark, and start to fly into each other, buildings, wires, utility poles, or the ground. Or they simply drop from stress. Many of the birds examined so far have exhibited hemorrhages in their lungs and blood coming from their mouths – exactly what one would see when a bird collides fatally with something. Something similar happened in Falkoping, Sweden when 100 Jackdaws died after a New Years Eve fireworks celebration.

Beebe, Arkansas is in the Mississippi flyway and large concentrations of birds fly through the area over the year. It may be unusual but it’s not unexpected to observe mass bird deaths. Things like this have been documented over the years. One well-known case happened in Kansas in 1998 on a foggy, snowy night when 10,000 birds were disoriented by a light on a communications tower and died. They flew into each other, the tower and its cables, and many flew directly into the ground, impaling themselves on frozen wheat stubble. Each year millions of birds die in collisions with such towers. On September 11 of 2009 a “Tribute of Light” for the Twin Towers was installed. New York is on a major migration route. Birds were attracted to the lights and then couldn’t move so the lights had to be turned off several times to get the birds to leave rather than spending the night trapped in the lights.

Every year the USGS logs mass wildlife die-offs. The list includes 900 Turkey Vultures that seemed to drown and starve in the Florida Keys, 4,300 ducks killed by parasites in Minnesota, and the still mysterious death of 2,750 sea birds in California. On average, 163 such events are reported to the federal government each year, according to USGS records. And there have been much larger die-offs than the 3,000 blackbirds in Arkansas. Twice in the summer of 1996, more than 100,000 ducks died of botulism in Canada.

From LiveScience:

“Thousands of dead seabirds have washed up on Alaskan shores over the past nine months (2016). And while a dead bird washing ashore is a fairly common occurrence, these large numbers are leaving scientists concerned and confused.

Nearly 8,000 common murres (Uria aalge) were found along the shores of Whittier, Alaska, in early January. Over the New Year’s holiday, Alaska experienced four days of gale-force winds from the southeast that resulted in dead birds washing ashore, said Robb Kaler, a wildlife biologist for the Alaska branch of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Scientists have known for some time that the key to surviving strong storm winds is having an energy reserve, according to an expert at Tufts University, and Kaler and his colleagues think that the common murres were not finding enough food this season, which may be why so many didn’t make it through the storm.”

All these are unfortunate events, but not Aflockalypse, as some surmise.


1 thought on “Birds Falling From the Sky”

  1. Thank you for such a well explained and researched answer. I had been wondering about bird die offs and your explanation has put to rest some of the conspiracies.

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