Dead Birds

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Mike
    January 4, 2011

    Nice, Greg. I’ve been waiting for someone to figure out what happened to these blackbirds or connect this seemingly arbitrary incident to some larger context. But I must be easily impressed because I think that custom Google search link at the end of your post is seriously cool.

  2. #2 Pete Moulton
    January 4, 2011

    I’m going with the alien theory for now. There’s as much evidence for it as any other explanation.

    BTW, Greg, the Taxonomy Police called to point out that although European Starlings are birds which are black, they aren’t blackbirds, and belong instead to an entirely different family (Sturnidae, rather than Icteridae, if you must know).

  3. #3 bobh
    January 4, 2011

    I’m disappointed in the conspiracy crowd. Pine Bluff Arsenal was a major depot of chemical weapons. Sure the Army SAYS they destroyed all of it by 2008 but… I’m just saying.

  4. #4 MadScientist
    January 4, 2011

    De gummin’t is already covering up with stories about firecrackers. Sure – so where are the burnt feathers and the big pieces blasted out of the birds, eh? Dey was testin’ some secret weapon from Roswell – pretty impressive toasting birds in Arkansas from Roswell, eh?

  5. #5 Matt Johnson
    January 4, 2011

    Good post Greg.

  6. #6 John Roberts
    January 4, 2011

    Good post, Greg. This is a fascinating event. Do you suppose a deadly agent was emitted by aircraft? There is some online chatter that blames the U.S. Air Force for a chemical weapons accident. Well, here we go with the conspiracy thing.

  7. #7 snore stop
    January 4, 2011

    I think that something very big did something to these animals. We are seeing the results of it. Perhaps is an experiment or a warning from our own, or others.we are not fooled by media propaganda.we just had a freakin oil spill that destroyed every earthly element in its path.poor birds poor humans.GoGreen.

  8. Well, what about just dumping jet fuel? That’s not uncommon, and would probably cause birds to crash.

  9. #9 Morten Steinsland
    January 5, 2011

    Same thing has happened in Sweden today.

    http://www.aftonbladet.se/nyheter/article8370375.ab

  10. #10 Adrian
    January 5, 2011

    I’m confused (not an unusual state for me), in the UK Blackbirds are thrushes, Turdus. Are these migrating thrushes or Icterids of some sort? Which species is involved in these incidents?

  11. #11 Greg Laden
    January 5, 2011

    That’s the problem with common name. The way I used the term, incorrectly by the way, is dark colored passerines that fly in huge flocks. European “blackbirds” are “thrushes” and American “blackbirds” are Icterids. Starlings are neither, being member of the Sturnidae, which do not occur natural in the new world.

  12. #12 Traduceri
    January 5, 2011

    The other disturbing thing is, which I don’t know if you noticed that article containing the birds, was the number of fish in a particular lake that died as well. That is in the same area where all of the birds “dropped out of the sky”. Now is it possible, that someone, which could certainly have happened, poisoned that particular pond, that killed all the fish, be the same reason why the birds died?

  13. #13 daedalus4u
    January 5, 2011

    One of the Swedish articles mentions salt. Birds can mistake salt for grit which they need for their gizzard to grind up seeds. They probably can’t tell the difference until it is too late. That would be pretty difficult to test for.

    A gram per bird would probably be plenty to kill them. I don’t know enough about birds loading up their gizzards, but if they are flying long distance they might empty it out to save weight and then refill it when they get to where there is food. Over evolutionary time, clear crystalline-type stones would only be quartz which would make very good gastroliths.

  14. #14 Greg Laden
    January 5, 2011

    I’m pretty sure the fish dieoff and the bird dieoff in arkansas are not very near each other.

  15. #15 CS
    January 5, 2011

    The MSNBC article mentioned that the U.S. Geological Service website listed about 90 mass animal deaths (mainly birds?) between June and December. That is a mass die-off an average of once every two days in the U.S. alone. Two bird and one fish die-off over the course of a week seems to be completely in line with the statistical average, much less an exceptional occurrence.

  16. #16 Greg Laden
    January 5, 2011

    CS: Indeed.

  17. #17 Jennifer
    January 5, 2011

    This was a topic of conversation between some of my students today. As we discussed that fact that none of us really knew what had happened to those birds, we did discuss all of the strange things that keep happening. Obviously the birds, which I see now adds a third case, the fish, and of course the weather. The idea of such unpredictable weather patterns suggests that there is something going on in the atmosphere. Is the connection between all of this a coincidence? As a student quoted today, “it is kind of scary.”

  18. #18 Kimberly
    January 6, 2011

    Im not sure if anyone else has noticed this, but today on the local news in my area, it kept mentioning about the birds in Arkansas. It led you to believe that after the commercial break they would inform you of more news on this story. So after the commercial the news would return, but not with the bird story, it kept promising that after each commercial it would let ya know! This went on the whole news cast. needless to say, this story was never allowed to be aired! If its just so called weather/fireworks then how does the media/ government explain why its happening all over the world and why exactly are the fish dying too! It seems from my research that most of the birds dying are of a related species or type of bird. Someone out there knows the truth, now they just gotta get the nerve to live to tell!

  19. #19 Justin Hayward
    January 6, 2011

    I just wish it wasn’t the birds and fish that are falling and drowning. I would how ever like to see the same thing happen in Congress and the Senate when they are in session. And toss in the White House as a bonus.

  20. #20 Jon
    January 6, 2011

    There are also reports of birds dying in Brazil, Sweden and Maryland. I wonder if some CERN experiment went awary!

  21. #21 Greg Laden
    January 6, 2011

    So far I like the CERN conspiracy theory best. A tiny black hole erratically orbiting the Earth at low altitude. We should check the taller mountains to see if any of them have holes in them.

  22. #22 George Fernandez
    January 6, 2011

    I believe a very strong possibility is a pocket of air with either no oxygen (like the dead zones we have growing in the oceans), or containing some poisonous gas that the flock ran into. I had heard there was a similar local extinction of some fish in a nearby Arkansas river. If some chemical was responsible for this in the river and then subsequently evaporated into the air wherein the birds entered the air pocket and died.
    I believe attributing their death to trauma (as if that wouldn’t happen falling from the sky, even for a hearty bird like the Red-Winged Black Bid) smacks of a local cover-up.
    I also believe that climate change is manifesting due to similar phenomena, in which the atmosphere is becoming more heterogeneous (or fractionated), resulting in greater differences in chemical and electrical, and even mass properties. One of the evidences for this is increased turbulence and tornadic activity.

  23. #23 Greg Laden
    January 6, 2011

    George, I agree that trauma is what you’d expect if the birds crashed following their demise (or unconsciousness, or little birdie seizures, or whatever), but I don’t see a cover up. Mass bird deaths are not uncommon. I think what we really have here is the seepage of a not to rare but not often noted event into the media for some reason.

  24. #24 George Fernandez
    January 6, 2011

    Greg, the reason I suspect cover-up is that the answer about trauma is too simplistically stupid. First the straw grab, fireworks, and the trauma idea. How long, really, does it take to autopsy a little red-winged black bird. Any ideas? How about blood toxicology tests?

    Do you know, did anyone observe this as it happened? If every bird in the given area dropped dead, suddenly, then I would tend to lean to my theory. If some survived in the same airspace, then perhaps I could believe some natural event.

  25. #26 George Fernandez
    January 6, 2011

    Oh Boy! Sorry Morten (#9) My Svedish is not too good, but the picture tells its words.

  26. #27 Ken
    January 6, 2011

    I think its all the kids that got BB guns for Christmas. Don’t laugh..it’s as good of an excuse as the governments are giving.

  27. #28 sci
    January 6, 2011

    a)
    not BB guns – no bullet holes found.
    not a lightning – no KFC found.
    no fish in stomach could mean no poison but there
    are a few that would require to GCMS the fish’s liver and brain.. I don’t think it is anyway. hail is the best explanation.

    b)
    perhaps it is ordinary. birds die from a virus/hail/all the above, but we have started a media panic that got people to look around and search for dead birds. or perhaps now that you would see dead birds, you would call the authorities or a newspaper.. which you wouldn’t have done before the initial reports.

    c)
    I find it very disappointing that it takes more than five days to get to the point. my fault, I probably watch too much T.V.

  28. #29 Greg Laden
    January 6, 2011

    Ana, thanks for the link! We’d better get busy!

  29. #30 Dave D
    January 7, 2011

    Have you noticed the increasing amount of chemical trails streaking across our skies and around the world? These are likely the cause of the flocks of dead birds, fish and honey bees. They have finally admitted these are not regular contrails (ice) but are for weather modification(lie). Don’t mess with mother nature idiotic government officials that screw up cash for clunkers are messing with mother nature. This is a lie anyway, the first lie was the air force wasn’t doing the chemical trails, wake up people they are poisoning everything including us with our own tax dollars!

  30. #31 Shan
    January 7, 2011

    Poor birds. Something fairly common is bring made into a ridiculous media frenzy.

  31. #32 Jennifer
    January 7, 2011

    I was reading an article this morning that stated the bird deaths in Arkansas were caused by impact trauma due to becoming disoriented and running into buildings and such. I can understand how this can be a possibility, since the autopsy does show bruising of their tissues and organs, but there were about 3000 birds found in Arkansas alone. I guess the information is just not matching up to me. George had commented on tornadic activity. Why are they not associating bird deaths with weather patterns? Arkansas did just have some pretty bad tornadoes go through the state.

  32. #33 sra
    January 7, 2011

    Has there been an increase in solar flare activity lately?

  33. #34 vivian potts
    January 10, 2011

    now our news here is stating the birds fell from sky over being too fat-haaaaaaaaaaaaaaa–I live in tornado alley–have had tornados only about a block frome me several times and we didn’t have any birds to pick up with all the hail and lightning. Birds usually sense before we do a change in weather. Fireworks –live nearby 3 cities with major firework displays as well as a theme park doing theirs–never had any dead birds. I think they are feeding me Cornflakes on this one on the news. Even our TV weather man got a chuckle out of the fireworks & couldnt buy it either.

  34. #35 sara s
    January 13, 2011

    i just heard today on the news, hundreds thousands of birds fell to their deaths in Romania, the explanation, there was a winery nearby and they had all drunk the wine and fell to their deaths, is anybody buying this bullshit, cause apparently the people who deliver the news are, what happened to investigavtie journalism, also did you notice how quickly the governments are coming up with explanation, and ridiculous ones at that, all i can day is THANK GOD FOR WIKILEAKS, everybody else is afraid to question the governments even “free speech media”:(

  35. #36 Duncan
    January 14, 2011

    Hi I just posted my comment to http://mysteriousmiscellany.blogspot.com/2011/01/strange-bird-fish-and-animal-deaths.html so please forgive me for linking the two discusstions together.

    I came across your blog, because I have been following this story as a matter of personal interest, ever since I heard about the mysterious bird deaths in Sweden. There has been a a few fictional story lines in the media portraying events like this and they do prompt food for thought. Only recently this week, there were more bird deaths in Romania. What I find strange is the explanations given for why a flock of birds or so many fish of one type have died so mysteriously. My own opinion is that these animals all have something in common and something in the environment changed to cause them to all perish in these groups, all at once. One thing I think that should be looked into is the genetic traits of each of these groups of animals. They may have been genetically susceptible to something that made them all die at once. I’m putting my Microbiology cap on here… Perhaps a level of radiation or magnetism (some force capable of influencing us on a molecular scale) peaked at a particular level that just happened to be right, for affecting certain genes, resulting in the “switching off” of specific families/relations of these animals- like a very sudden acceleration of the biochemical aging process all life has to undergo. Hence only a few of these fish or birds have been affected by an environmental factor which is is most likely global. One would need to make further observations to learn more…

  36. #37 Duncan Falconer
    January 19, 2011

    Hi Greg,
    I have just seen another report on the BBC news website commenting on “Thousands of dead octopuses have washed up on a beach in northern Portugal”. The web link is http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8438477.stm There is video showing the octopuses, all of different sizes but looking like the same species… Would you know of any authorities that deal on the subject of theorizing and researching what is going on?
    Thanks

  37. #38 Greg Laden
    January 19, 2011

    I don’t know about that region specifically. Is there a red tide there? Also check to confirm that these are octopus and not squid. It makes a difference! Mass deaths of things in the ocean are pretty common.

  38. #39 Duncan Falconer
    January 19, 2011

    Hi Greg,
    I’ve just done a Google search here and come up with link worth looking at: http://www.ecoworld.com/ideas/literature/massive-octopus-kill-mystery.html

    It seems that the octopuses have been washing up since the 2nd January. There has also been no reports of a red tide in the articles.

    Another website, http://globalrumblings.blogspot.com/2011/01/thousands-of-octopus-dead-on-portugal.html is also worth a read.

    One thing though, is that there is no indication yet that these unusual events are been taken seriously in this neck of the woods (Europe any way from what has been discussed in the news). As a layman, I would prefer to er on the side of caution and pass my concerns to those folks that work in the scientific field.

    Thanks

  39. #40 brian
    February 1, 2011

    I work in Canada for the NRC and I am closely linked with the SKA project (square kilometer array).

    I am not supposed to share this, but there is a connection with the dead birds and the recent sightings of lights over major centers.

    about 6 months ago we began to detect seve

  40. #41 vijayakumar
    May 12, 2011

    iam not supposed to share this but there is a connection

Current ye@r *