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Science News Staff
Deleted Scenes

Arkansas birds died of trauma

Necropsies suggest loud noise caused panicked flock to fly into objects

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The blackbirds falling in the dead of night over Beebe, Ark., suffered more than broken wings. Preliminary postmortem results on 18 of the thousands of blackbirds and starlings that fell from the sky New Year’s Eve point to blunt force trauma as the cause of death. Toxicology results won’t be in until later in the week, but poison, hail, or gunshot are all unlikely, says state veterinarian George Bradley.

Around 11:30 p.m. on New Year’s Eve calls started coming in reporting dead red-winged black birds falling from the sky in the city limits of Beebe, an area of about one square mile. Necropsies conducted January 3 found multiple internal hemorrhages. The severe internal bleeding and clots were concentrated in the birds’ chest cavities, abdominal cavities and around their livers. There were no tell-tale external wounds, Bradley said.

The timing and concentrated, localized nature of the event suggests that a flock got totally freaked out and started flying madly into things like trees, buildings and even each other. Red-winged blackbirds are active during the day and apparently can’t see very well at night. They migrate and roost in flocks of thousands. An eyewitness who reported an unusual number of the birds roosting on his property said he heard something that sounded like a cannon going off in 20 or so large booms during the evening. All reports suggest the birds started falling well after dark.

“It looks like it was bad karma for these birds,” Bradley said. “It’s very unusual, I’ve never heard of anything like it.”

Many airports now employ noisemakers to prevent untimely meetings between birds and planes, Bradley notes, but he hasn’t heard of these precautionary noises ever leading to bird hysteria and death.

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