Red-winged Blackbirds and other Catastrophies

The phones were literally ringing off the hooks at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in the first days of 2011. Everyone was concerned about the large numbers of birds found dead in Arkansas on the first day of the year.  They wanted explanation: what's going on, and should we be worried?  My colleague, Dr. Kevin McGowan, fielded many of the calls and I heard the explanation... over and over!

The bottom line is this: scientists theorize that loud noises, probably from fireworks launched in a new year's eve celebration, frightened the birds from their sleep in roosts near the Beebe subdivision. Keep in mind that the blackbirds, unlike owls, have poor night vision.  Scared and flying blind, they then crashed into houses, each other, telephone wires, and other objects. Can you imagine if someone popped a firecracker under your bed in the middle of the night?  What are the chances you and your family would not run into a few things as you scattered in fear?!?

Blackbird flock by Bill Swindaman, Flickr

North America has an estimated 210 million red-winged blackbirds, and some areas are especially heavy with roosting birds in the winter. For example, in Arkansas almost exactly 2 years prior, an ornithologist reported seeing an estimated 1 million blackbirds going to roost. “I guarantee you, if there hadn’t been 5,000 birds fall into somebody’s laps … you would not have heard about the blackbirds dying", McGowan said. “But 5,000 birds is a lot, and they fell in everybody’s yards." 

And what about the reports since then of other bird and fish die-offs?  People are concerned that maybe something more is going on, and wondering why it seems that all of a sudden there are so many reports. “Once you get alert to what’s out there, you start seeing it more often,” Kevin states. This happens to me all the time... for example, one of my friends is heading to Turkey for vacation (which I thought was a very odd destination) but then suddenly everywhere I look are references to Turkey!

Miyoko Chu, another Cornell Lab colleague, found that according to the USGS, which keeps official records within the U.S., there have been 188 incidents in the past 10 years involving the deaths of more than 1,000 birds. This averages out to more than one a month. We just don’t hear about them all the time because they’re not typically considered sensational news. So sadly, this is a story that is repeated often in nature, whether we know it or not.  (For details from USGS, visit this site.)

Finally, the beauty of science allows us to make some predictions about what the dead birds should look like depending on the cause of death. "The bodies say it was a collision.” according to Kevin. Hence, the most plausible explanation seems to be the "loud noise, scared and colliding birds" hypothesis, rather than poisoning, gas, disease, end-times, or some of the other explanations that have come across Kevin's desk.

Things are starting to calm down at the Cornell Lab.  As I type, Kevin is only fielding his second phone call  of the day about the "dead birds in Arkansas."  If you'd like more information or listen an interview with Kevin, please visit the Cornell Lab's blog.

May the birds in your yard be safe and healthy,

Jennifer Fee
Education Program
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
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