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?
(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
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.