Tuesday, January 04, 2011

TOP STORY > >Mystery of birds falling on Beebe by THOUSANDS

Leader staff writer

Was it the beginning of the Apocalypse, a UFO, hail so high in the atmosphere that it didn’t hit the ground, lightning or poisoned water from gas-drilling operations in the area that caused 6,000 blackbirds to fall dead from the sky over Beebe late on New Year’s Eve and into the early hours of Jan. 1?

If you listened to the talk as residents woke up to yards and streets littered with dead birds and saw men dressed in haz-mat suits cleaning them up, you likely heard some of those theories. The phenomenon was reported by Fox News, CNN, the New York Times and even by Jon Stewart from The Daily Show on Comedy Central who proclaimed that “birds of a feather die together.”

But witnesses told The Leader powerful fireworks went off around the time the birds dropped down on Beebe. A preliminary report from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission says the birds suffered from blunt trauma.

Compounding the mystery and also making national news was the kill-off of more than 100,000 young drum fish in the Arkansas River that was reported at about the same time as the dead birds. Scientists are still trying to determine the cause, but they say the dead fish and dead birds are not connected.

Linda Brown, who lives in the Windwood subdivision where most of the dead birds were found, saw her first three birds fall about midnight. But when she later learned that Arkansas Game and Fish has estimated that thousands of them were killed, she was almost certain she knew what had happened.

“It had to have been the fireworks,” she said.

Brown lives on Goff Cove, the first street in the subdivision. Behind her street is Taylor Cove and someone there was shooting large fireworks at about 10 p.m.

“They were shooting off these fantastic fireworks,” she said. “My living room is in the back of the house and I was watching them through my window. They weren’t the kind the kids usually have like Roman candles. They were fantastic fireworks and they were shooting them right over the pine trees where the birds roost.

“It must have been the fireworks because you can go outside when they’re in the trees and clap your hands, they’ll take off,” she said.

That theory is the one that is generally accepted and put forth by city and state officials.

Meteorologists have de-bunked the storm theory. There were no storms in the area. However, a mass takeoff of birds prior to the rain of dead birds appears to have been caught on radar.

Todd Yakoubian with KATV speculated in his blog Monday that a “plume of something” appeared on radar near Beebe at 10:17 and lasted for “quite a while” could have been the birds. But Ryan Vaughn with KAIT in Jonesboro was more certain, “Sure looked like birds to me.”

If it was the fireworks that scared the birds to flight after they roosted for the evening, what killed them?

Kevin McGowan, a prominent ornithologist affiliated with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University at Ithaca, N.Y., said in a phone interview Monday that blackbirds can’t see at night. That’s why they roost. If they were frightened off their roosts by fireworks, they could easily have been killed by flying into objects or even into each other, McGowan said.

Poisoning was unlikely, he said, because that doesn’t explain why the birds fell from the sky. Remember, he said, blackbirds don’t fly at night because they can’t see in the dark.

By Monday evening, Arkansas Game and Fish had issued a press release listing massive trauma as the cause of death.

“Results from preliminary testing released today by the Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission Veterinary Diagnostic Lab show that the red-winged blackbirds died from massive trauma on New Year’s Eve,” the press release said. “The trauma was primarily in breast tissue, with blood clots in the body cavity and internal bleeding.

“Further tests will be done to rule out other causes, but the birds suffered from acute physical trauma leading to internal hemorrhage and death,” the release said.

Before noon on Jan. 1, the Beebe City Council met to discuss the situation and even though the swearing in ceremony would not be held until Monday evening, they approved contracting with U.S. Environmental Services for the cleanup that has been estimated to cost $12,000.

Game and Fish started getting reports about the dead birds before midnight on New Year’s Eve. They have taken some heat from residents for meeting before they were sworn in, but Clerk-Treasurer Carol Crump Westergren defended the decision saying, “We had to take care of business.”

The city council learned how much the cleanup would likely cost the city from Mayor Mike Robertson Monday night.

The noise and mess from roosting blackbirds have caused problems for Beebe residents for many years. In the past, the city has used noise as a deterrent, to scare the birds away as they are coming in to roost in the pines in Windwood. But so far this year, those techniques have not been used.

The mayor told the council Monday night that they might need to reconsider the ordinance that allows discharging fireworks during holidays when the birds are roosting in the city.