First the birds started dropping from the sky. Then thousands of fish began washing up on the riverbank. What’s next for Arkansas – 20 inches of snow?
It may sound apocalyptic, but scientists are eying perfectly natural causes for the death of 3,000 red-winged blackbirds on New Year’s Eve and the subsequent discovery of 100,000 dead freshwater drum in the Arkansas River.
Residents of the small town of Beebe were startled Saturday morning to find the dead birds littered over a 1.5-square-mile area.
“Every dog and cat in the neighborhood that night was able to get a fresh snack,” said Karen Rowe, an ornithologist with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.
Concerned cleanup crews took no chances and donned protective suits and gas masks to collect the carcasses – but it may be that nothing more nefarious than severe weather that night was the cause.
There are numerous past cases of birds becoming disoriented in storms and crashing en masse into the ground.
“This is a well-known phenomenon,” said John Fitzpatrick, director of Cornell University’s ornithology lab. “Given the violent storm in that area, it sounds consistent with the idea that they got swept up in a storm.”
He said it was a good bet the birds were torn from their nighttime roosts – where they can gather in groups as large as 20,000 – and driven into a “washing-machine type thunderstorm.”
Fitzpatrick said birds can quickly die of exposure if their feathers get excessively waterlogged.
Other explanations could be New Year’s fireworks causing birds to lose their way, or poisoning.
Many of the birds appeared to have injuries consistent with hitting the ground, although it is not clear if they were already dead when they landed, officials said.
As for the fish, investigators suspect illness.
“It appears that it could be a disease, because it just affected one species,” said Keith Stephens of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.
“We don’t believe it’s environmental, because it would have killed a lot of other fish,” he said. “We have fishkills from time to time, it’s not unusual.”
Nearly 15 million baitfish washed up on the shores of Lake Elsinore in California in 2009 as the result of oxygen deprivation.
Stephens did not believe there was any connection between the fish and bird deaths.
The birds’ remains have been shipped to several labs in Arkansas, Georgia and Wisconsin, and test results are expected back in a week.
Samples of the fish were taken to a lab at the University of Arkansas, and results are expected in about a month, Stephens said.
Red-winged blackbirds are among the most abundant birds in North America, with a population of 100 million to 200 million.
The birds are generally loathed for leaving behind massive piles of droppings that sometimes reach knee high. Officials have tried to move them away from areas of the state using shotguns and cannons, but they always have returned.
With News Wire Services
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“The fish kill only affected one species of fish,” he said. “If it was from a pollutant, it would have affected all of the fish, not just drum fish.”
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