In the renowned yet obscure documentary, “Dead Birds,” watchful men in a traditional community in Highland Papua New Guinea use the sudden flight of birds as a clue to the possible encroachment of a hidden enemy bent on blood revenge. In mines, canaries signal air too poisoned to breath by dying faster than affected humans. And in Arkansas, apparently, the sudden death of thousands of blackbirds are used to indicate the nefarious activities of aliens from another planet.
These unexplained (or actually, over explained) instances of blackbird death, one a few days ago in Arkansas and one just now in Louisiana, are interesting. Following the rule of threes, there should be another incident within a few days.
It puts me in mind of my Great Trek across the United states when I was more or less a kid (well, younger anyway). I did not hitchhike across the country as many had before, but rather, drove an old Volkswagen. It was an exciting adventure and I got to know a couple of parts of the country I would otherwise never come to have even the vaguest understanding of, such as parts of the South, the Desert Southwest, and southern California.
Much of the traveling was carried out just this time of year, and I saw something that we don’t have in where I had been living in the Hudson Valley: The spectacular blackbird flocks that are migrating about now. I remember first seeing them as low and dark elongated clouds, some kind of weather phenomenon, on the southern plains in Arkansas and East Texas. I really did think they were some kind of cloud until the highway I was on intersected one of the flocks. At that point, the noise or wind (or something) of the semi trucks disrupted the flock, and the birds backtracked and flew in a frenzied random formation, like water at the sidewalk end of a stream coming out of a hose. From then on I watched, over a few days of travel, dozens of these flocks that were clearly miles long, containg tends of thousands of birds, trying to cross the interstates, generally going south.
Later on I moved to Boston and found out about a local smaller version of the same phenomenon. Starlings (an introduced invasive blackbird) nested along the flat surfaces provided by horizontally oriented I-beams that underlaid the highway that was eventually be replaced by the famous “Big Dig” (I’m sure you’ve heard of the Big Dig). There were some 15 miles of highway and ramps overhead, and each had between six and eight I-beams, and each I-beam had two sides each with a flat surface. Along the entire length of this flat area were starling nests, about one per foot. Do the math. That about a million nests, so a pair of starlings with a flying young (just before it leaves the nest) times one million is a lot of starlings, and they did not feed in the city. They feed on the farms out in Concord and Lexington and other areas, and they got there and back in these huge elonaged flocks, which flew at a rate and time set to leave the roost just after sun-up and return just before sundown.
Once I figured this out, I had a clock. From anywhere in the Boston Area, if I knew the time of sunup or sunset, I could tell the exact time in the early AM or late PM by noting when the flocks were visible, and once you knew they were there, you could spot them from higher elevations, such as the beer lounge in William James Hall.
Or, alternatively, I could estimate how far from Downtown Boston and Charlestown (the site of the Big Dig) based on the time that the blackbirds flew by. Also, since the roadways in question were next to the airport, one could predict the flight of the starlings by spotting the flight paths of the birds. And so on.
(As you can guess, Graduate Students in the Boston Area are easily amused.)
The reason I discovered the starlings was that I was doing archaeology down under these roads. Starlings will have more than one brood in a year if they can. In fact, they’ll have three if they can. One year they were on their third (or maybe forth?) brood when a severe frost hit overnight. That day, down under the road, early in the morning, there was a constant background sound of “plop … plop … plop” as the starlings tossed their dead, mainly chicks, out of the nest. The thermodynamics of survival are a bit tricky with birds. They tried, they froze, they failed. But there were still a lot of them. I have wondered, since I left Boston, if the farmers in Concord and Lexington and elsewhere have fewer starlings raiding their crops since a major nesting site was eliminated when those overhead roads were torn down.
The lasts on the bird deaths Arkansas and Louisiana that I’ve seen has not been definitive. For a while people thought the Arkansas deaths were caused by birds being confused by fireworks and running into things. The Louisiana deaths, it is suggested, may be a best control effort gone wrong. Indeed, the mystery deepens. We should be concerned, of course, if this is a clue. Perhaps someone or some thing is sneaking up on us. Perhaps the cold weather distributed along the south, somewhat unusually, has messed with the thermodynamics of the birds enough that the occasional flock is going to crap out in the middle of its flight now and then. Perhaps it is some existing environmental insult that is worse this year than usual for some reason. Whatever the answer, it can’t not be interesting.
Just keep clicking here to find out what the answer is.