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The Night the Birds Fell From the Sky

The Night the Birds Fell From the Sky

A Mystery, Yes, But What else?

Published 01/13/11 All animals are equal, but in my personal, subjective life birds are more so — they are my passion, my lifelong obsession. So when news broke on New Year's Day that birds were falling from the sky in a place called Beebe, Arkansas, I began to receive queries. Everyone wanted to know the same thing: What happened? What was my opinion?

Within a day it emerged that on New Year's Eve fireworks had been ignited near a woody area where the birds roosted. A lot of people scoffed at the idea that so many birds — figures varied but it seems up to 5,000 birds died or were injured — could be affected by a relatively modest fireworks display. This was not Sydney Harbor, Hong Kong or London — we're talking about Beebe, Arkansas. Why weren't the birds' feathers singed, if fireworks were involved?

Red-winged blackbirds.
(Painting by Barry Kent MacKay)

I dislike fireworks because they scare, frighten, terrorize and kill innocent animals while burning up money better spent, in my opinion, on social services such as child care, universal health care and subsidized housing. That said, it appears that they were the catalyst to the disaster in Beebe. The species involved were mostly red-winged blackbirds, although I also saw some news photos of grackles and starlings. While many diurnal songbirds migrate at night, these ones do not. In the fall and winter they gather into massive roosts, in woods or marshes, where they spend the night.

For some birds, flight under the right conditions uses relatively little energy. But for songbirds flight costs a great deal of energy, and forced flight can be very stressful. Aviculturists are familiar with an unfortunate phenomenon popularly called "night fright." Birds in large cages or aviaries are particularly susceptible to sudden panics in the night, possibly triggered by a loud noise, lightning or the sudden appearance of an owl or rodent. Even in confined quarters it can be fatal, and I always advise anyone keeping birds to provide a low-wattage night light.

Chinese leader Mao Zedong(1893-1976) read somewhere that songbirds forced to stay airborne would die from the stress, and in 1958 he ordered the entire nation to let off firecrackers, beat pots and pans and make as much noise as they could in any manner, in order to rid the nation of sparrows, who were seen as competitors for crops. It worked. Birds, sparrows and others died in huge numbers. But seed-eating species, such as sparrows, switch to insect diets when they have young, and insect-eating species such as flycatchers, thrushes and warblers were also stressed to death by Mao's plan. In the absence of birds, insects in China, including locusts, proliferated unchecked and destroyed far more food crops than birds ever could have affected, and as a result Chinese people starved in the tens of millions.

Stress alone is a killer, but that does not mean there might not be other factors involved. It is possible that that the birds' health was already compromised by some sort of toxic substance in the environment. Birds are particularly vulnerable to airborne pollutants. Cooking with pans coated by Teflon or other non-stick properties can quickly lead to "Teflon toxicosis" in nearby caged budgies or other caged birds, when the lungs hemorrhage, suffocating the bird. But other toxins can also be fatal to birds long before they have any discernable effect on humans, which is why miners historically took caged canaries into mines. The birds would expire from toxic gases before there was a danger to humans, allowing the miners a chance to get away before being overcome themselves.

Immediately after the news about the Beebe birds broke there were clumsy attempts by media and conspiracy theorists to link those deaths to other die-offs of wildlife, including drum fish in Arkansas, crabs, turtle doves and even pigeons in Quebec City. The sad fact is that such die-offs, particularly of fish and other aquatic organisms, are commonplace, but unless they involve large animals (such as pilot whales) or occur in very public locations, they are often only locally reported. And they are not always connected to human activity; an examination of the fossil record shows mass die-offs of large numbers of animals happening long before humans evolved.

The birds at Beebe reportedly suffered physical trauma. Such injuries are hard to explain if stress alone was the killer. I've picked up many birds that have fallen large distances and normally their bodies show little or no trauma, but of course we don't know just how far the birds fell in Beebe, and we don't know what structures, including tree branches, they might have struck during their panic.

Finally, even if there was something more than stress involved in the deaths of the unfortunate birds, don't expect to learn about it. This is not because of some sinister "cover-up" but because it is enormously expensive, and pragmatically difficult, to test for every possibility. Nor is there necessarily an understanding of what the combined effects of various toxins might have on birds under various circumstances. It is unlikely that a single cause of the mass bird deaths will emerge.

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