Monday, 3 January 2011

Mass bird deaths puzzle Arkansas town

January 3, 2011 – 7:03 am

With their vague allusions to Biblical plagues and a classic Hitchcock movie, flocks of dead birds falling from the sky make for an especially gripping whodunnit.

So it was in Beebe, Arkansas, as midnight approached on New Year’s Eve, when thousands of redwing blackbirds and at least one duck plummeted to Earth for no obvious reason.

Within just a few minutes over about a kilometer and a half, it was raining birds; they fell onto houses and lawns,
dead as Monty Python’s Norwegian Blue parrot.

A wildlife officer responding to an emergency call reported that he arrived on the scene as birds were still falling around him, some of them still alive.

By daybreak, teams of workers in hazardous materials suits had been dispatched to stoop and scoop from lawns and roofs, and to save some carcasses for autopsies.

Residents watched from windows and kept children and dogs indoors, fearful of viruses or toxins.

“This is the only bird I have seen alive,” said a local television reporter, squatting on a Beebe sidewalk beside a disoriented looking warbler.

“He seems to be injured, just walking in circles and not making any sounds, and he can’t fly,” she said, before cutting to footage of 10 live birds perched in a tree.

Several dozen of the Arkansas carcasses were sent for autopsies, which begin on Monday.

The Arkansas incident is not the first involving massive bird deaths: Others have included the missing sparrows of Hobart, Australia, and the dead mallards of Idaho.

In 2007 in Austin, Texas, so many birds fell around the state capitol that police closed it for safety.

Karen Rowe, an ornithologist with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, said massive bird deaths are relatively common, for various reasons.

A strong storm had moved through the area on Friday, and birds can be carried against their will high into the cold, thin air, where they can freeze.

Likewise, they could have been struck by lightning or hail. New Year’s Eve fireworks could also have traumatized the birds as they passed near a party, Ms. Rowe said.

It is unlikely to have been a case of poisoning, Ms. Rowe said, although that would not be unprecedented and blackbirds are often regarded as pests.

In 2009 in Franklin Township, New Jersey, hundreds of European Starlings died in a controlled kill by the United States Department of Agriculture, which left out poisoned bird-food but neglected to tell anyone until the birds turned up dead.

Previous mass bird deaths have led to speculation about West Nile Virus and avian flu, which is likely to be part of the investigation.

National Post

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