Tuesday, January 03, 2012

TOP STORY >> Invaders swoop in at sunset

Leader editor

­­­­On Saturday afternoon, children and their parents were walking down the street in Beebe’s Windwood subdivision near where blackbirds roost at night on West Center Street.

A mother was walking her child in a stroller on the edge of the subdivision where some birds also roost, although not nearly as many as on Center Street.

It wouldn’t be long, she said, before thousands of birds showed up, as they do every night. A few birds landed on some trees inside the subdivision.

A man walking his dog said he might shoot off some firecrackers to scare away the birds.

The sun was setting behind them as more birds flew over the subdivision.

“They’ll be here as it gets dark,” the man said. “There will be more of them on Center Street.”

It was New Year’s Eve. The town’s residents were apprehensive about a repeat of last year, when some 5,000 blackbirds fell dead after powerful fireworks went off not far from their roost.

A crowd started to gather in the Beebe Church of Christ parking lot on Center Street before 5. The sun was setting on the right as the birds started swooping down toward an open field across from the church.

They landed up in the trees surrounding the field. There were a just a few hundred at first and then thousands of them. It’s called a murmuration: Huge flocks of birds flying together.

They blackened the sky as motorists on Center Street started honking. Somebody estimated a million birds were heading for the field.

They’d land and then take off. It was like a synchronized tornado sweeping up debris. Huge groups of them circled the field and then returned to the trees.

It was getting dark, and there were fireworks going off in the distance, which scared the birds.

An hour later, more fireworks went off near the roost. Beebe officials ordered them stopped, which prevented another massacre.

About 450 birds were killed Saturday, a tiny fraction of the disaster from a year ago, which a worldwide sensation.

As soon as the fireworks went off Saturday, Mayor Mike Robertson said Monday, “we asked them not to shoot.”

“This year, we didn’t have much trouble. A couple of pranksters shot off some fireworks,” he said. “We told them to stop it.”

Most people obeyed the order and no one has been charged.

“The event that killed the birds happened around 7:30,” Robertson said.

“We thought it was fireworks that killed the birds last year,” the mayor said. “This year proved it.”

“Last year, commercial-grade fireworks were set off,” he continued. “It was a like a sonic boom. Maybe it was accidental.”

He said the city council will consider banning fireworks on New Year’s Eve. The birds come through Beebe in the fall and winter and aren’t around on the Fourth of July.

Robertson thinks a shopping center that’s planned for Center Street will probably drive away the birds from there and move them out of town.

“I watch them in the morning when they fly away,” the mayor said. “There are so many of them trying to avoid each other.”

They’re tough birds.