Monday, January 17, 2011

Dying Bird and Fish Mystery in Arkansas: Solved

by Andrea Campbell

It reads like some kind of horror film, reports of 3,000 (to 5,000) birds mysteriously falling out of the air and dropping dead in Beebe, Arkansas, before midnight on New Year’s Eve. The birds were said to be littering a 1.5-square-mile area, landing on homes, cars and lawns. And then 100,000 dead drum fish are found floating and washing up on the Arkansas River banks near Ozark. It’s some kind of staging for a movie right?

No Film Trickery
Unfortunately, this is not in preparation for a movie, and the residents near the river are being advised by authorities not to eat the dead fish. Uh, yeah, okay—who was even thinking that?

Here we are, welcoming in the new year when thousands of red-wing blackbirds take a dive from the sky in Beebe, and then more than 100 miles away the fish are belly up along a 20-mile stretch. But the Arkansas Game & Fish authorities claimed the deaths weren’t related.

Bebee Residents Sing Bye-Bye Blackbird
Over the holiday weekend, crews arrived suited up in their protective
gear wearing gas masks and gloves, picking up the carcasses. Apparently, blackbird roosts in Beebe are a nuisance because of ankle-to-knee-deep bird droppings in some areas, so the residents aren’t keen on their habits. Ten years ago, wildlife officials lobbed blanks from both shotguns and  a cannon to disturb a roost of thousands, but the black-winged birds decided to come home again.

Scary Elsewhere Too
Arkansas is not the only state getting the same weird vibe. Two million dead fish were found in Maryland along the Chesapeake Bay. They were identified as adult spot and juvenile croakers. Environmental officials there claim the bay area temperatures were colder than usual and, although this fish kill was large, it’s not the biggest; 15 million succumbed to “cold water stress” in 1976.

Louisiana birds took some headlines, too, when 500 of their birds decorated a quarter-mile stretch of highway in Pointe Coupee Parish, close to Baton Rouge. The dead there were identified as starlings and more red-winged blackbirds. It’s not looking good for the ed-winged blackbird, I guess. Biologists there are sending the carcasses off to laboratories in Wisconsin and Georgia for testing. In 1999, an estimated 3,000 birds hit the ground in northern Louisiana in a place called Morehouse Parish. It was discovered that those birds died from an E. coli infection located in the air sacs in their skulls.

Not Scary?
No one really sounds alarmed, and scientists say that large numbers of bird deaths are not uncommon. I know that makes us all feel better, right? A website set up by the U.S. Geological Service has a map that shows mass deaths of birds and other wildlife from June through December. Five of the sites list deaths of at least 1,000 birds and many others count as high as 500.

Authority Comments
Some comments from Arkansas officials are that the birds may have been hit by lightning or were stressed out by fireworks displays. Now the fish story is more problematic, as they say that fish kills this size are rare. Many of the fish have been sent to the University of Arkansas for examination and testing. The associate director of the University’s Aquaculture and Fisheries Center was quoted as saying, "It's your classic boom and bust. A group of fish will go into a population boom, and then they're competing for food, so they may not be in really good condition. Then during a cold snap the environment changes with the temperature, and their immune systems are compromised and can't always fight infection." He temporarily ruled out a pollutant because only the drum fish were affected. Keith Stephens of the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission told CNN he agreed and that “… if it was from a pollutant, it would have affected all of the fish, not just drum fish."

Interesting Factoids
There have been some interesting comments batted around over this event, and one comes from Karen Rowe, an ornithologist with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. She said birds often become confused and just drop to earth. It seems that blackbirds have poor eyesight, and if they get startled, they fly into the ground.

Fireworks, Poison, Bad Weather, What?
After all the supposition, it appears now that the birds succumbed to a thunderstorm aftermath. After being ripped from their nighttime roosts, they got waterlogged and died from exposure. A tornado blew through the state and killed three people in Cincinnati, Arkansas, so experts think it may have been related. It seems birds get knocked around from lightning, hail and storm updrafts often enough.

The most recent testing results, released Wednesday by the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, show that red-winged blackbirds died from blunt force trauma on New Year's Eve. The report supports preliminary findings from the Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission released Monday.

As far as the fish, well, disease is the cause. An unnamed state official said that it’s not unusual. Since there is no further data on that, I am suggesting that no one around there order fish for dinner.

Bird photo courtesy of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/STEPHEN B. THORNTON.

1 comment:

DrGina said...

Thank you for this post Andrea. I've been wondering about these stories. Well written and fascinating.