U.S. News

Arkansas bird deaths blamed on fireworks

NASHVILLE, Tennessee (Reuters) - The deaths of 5,000 red-winged blackbirds in Beebe, Arkansas have been blamed on New Year’s Eve fireworks, officials confirmed on Thursday, citing preliminary tests.

One of thousands of blackbirds that fell out of the sky on New Year's Eve lies on the ground in Beebe, Arkansas January 1, 2011 in this handout photograph. REUTERS/Arkansas Game and Fish Commission/Handout

“It’s looking more and more like that,” said Keith Stephens, spokesman for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. It appears unusually loud noises frightened the birds out of their nighttime roost, and they may have flown into trees, houses and other objects, the commission said in a statement.

Blackbirds have poor night vision and typically do not fly at night.

Meanwhile, wildlife officials reported other mass blackbird deaths in Louisiana, Tennessee and Kentucky.

While the deaths have sparked multiple theories, bird experts say these types of birds tend to roost at night in huge numbers, and a disturbance can easily cause some to be disoriented and collide with buildings or trees.

Also, flocks tend to be larger in the American South in the wintertime, because the southern population is augmented by birds from the north, according to Michael Seymour, non-game ornithologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

Seymour said these large die-offs are “unfortunate” but “not unusual.”

About 450 red-winged blackbirds and starlings were found along a stretch of highway in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana, a few days after the Arkansas deaths.

About 120 blackbirds were found in Wilson County in central Tennessee between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, according to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

In Murray County, Kentucky, several hundred grackles, red-winged blackbirds and starlings were found within several blocks near Murray State University last week. Mark Marraccini, spokesman for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, said no toxins were discovered, and it was not known how the birds died. “They’re still looking into it,” he said.

The Tennessee birds had been dead too long to determine what killed them, said Lt. Jim Hooper of the TWRA. He said he hadn’t seen numbers like this in his 22 years with the agency.

“It was an odd deal,” said Hooper.

Melanie Driscoll, director of bird conservation, Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi Flyway, National Audubon Society said that birds like blackbirds and starlings roost in large congregations, of 100,000 or more. Compared to the size of the roost, 500 too 5,000 birds “isn’t a big number,” Driscoll said.

Tests on the Louisiana birds showed physical trauma, and the birds could have run into nearby power lines, said Seymour. He said the birds don’t get electrocuted, but die from impact, “like running into a wall.”

Seymour noted that in the winter, northern birds migrating to the south add to populations there, creating roosts of “literally millions” of birds.

Human causes, such as fireworks, power lines, or a collision with a truck, may explain avian deaths, wildlife experts say.

Stephens said it may be a couple of weeks before the Arkansas commission gets results on what killed up to 100,000 fish in the Arkansas River, about 125 miles away from where the dead birds were found. Stephens said that disease may have caused the fish die-off, since they are all one species, the bottom-feeding drum.

The Arkansas events do not appear related, Stephens said. (Writing by Mary Wisniewski, with reporting by Tim Ghianni and Alister Doyle, Editing by Greg McCune)