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Blackbirds in the Dead of Night [Mortality]

January 3, 2011

Given today’s traffic on Facebook, Twitter, various blogs, and of course various news outlets about this story you’ve probably already heard about the kind-of-spooky die-off of blackbirds in Arkansas on New Year’s Eve.  And before I go any further I must confess, yes, I was in Arkansas for the holidays.  But I have an alibi: by the time the blackbirds were aloft in that dark night sky I was comfortably on my couch back in New York. Check my Facebook updates, I was probably responding to something.  And, for the record, let it also be known I had nothing to do with the recent spate tornadoes, either.

Now that I’ve cleared myself of involvement, let me also admit I didn’t really know where Beebe, AR was until I looked it up on Google maps this morning.  I remember the northwest part of the state pretty well and I’m getting better about recognizing names from the central part of the state, especially the cities of Jacksonville (mother-in-law’s house) and Cabot (father-in-law’s house) that lie just to the northeast of Little Rock.  Imagine my surprise when I found out Beebe is 10 miles northeast of Cabot, meaning I’ve driven past it several times over the past few years on my way to Bald Knob NWR.  That shows you how closely I pay attention to road signs.  (By way of explanation I was either trying to make the Red-tailed Hawk perched on top of the sign  into a Rough-legged as I drove by, or I was arguing with myself about whether I was going in the right direction or not.  I have very animated arguments with myself, often to the exclusion of anything else.)

This Arkansas trip included very little time for birding. I secretly hoped for a day trip to Bald Knob, but a series of mid-December events lead my wife and I to spend most of our vacation packing up my father-in-law’s apartment so he could return to New York with us.  We spent most of our waking hours, and many of our sleeping hours, dealing with various aspects of the move, none of which involved finding interesting birds.  Ironically, it was that circumstance that lead to a very interesting blackbird observation.

But not just any blackbirds, I’m not using the Arkansas news story to tie in something I saw in NY, I’m talking specifically about the blackbirds that are making international news and will likely be part of many a Sunday sermon in the Natural State this weekend (end times, anyone?).  Because I couldn’t go elsewhere to find birds I tried to catch quick glimpses of birdlife around the apartment complex in Cabot.  I wouldn’t recommend it as a birding destination, but it hosts a nice colony of Purple Martins and the odd Scissor-tailed flycatcher in summer, and at this time of year it had a pair of Killdeer near-constantly making noise in the parking lot, a mockingbird patrolled the rooftops and the power lines, a Carolina Wren tea-kettled from the nearby woods.

And then there were the blackbirds.

I find that blackbirds, in the general usage where I mean Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles, and Brown-headed Cowbirds, aren’t usually interesting by themselves, at least not in winter.  They’re fascinating as individuals during the breeding season when they’re flaring their epaulets, depredating a nest of an egg or two, or parasitizing the nest of an unsuspecting songbird.  In winter they’re fascinating as a group, and that’s what I found on one of my trips to the parking lot.

It was late afternoon, just before 5:00, as I stood outside the backdoor trying to figure out which bags off accumulated stuff were trash and which were to be donated, subconsciously hearing chips and squeaky calls from above.  I soon stood between two piles watching the cloudless, dusky pink-purple sky as a literal and figurative river of blackbirds passed over the apartments.  I couldn’t see the lead bird, I must have caught the flight in midstream.  I never saw the final lagging ones, either.  Their passage was steady and constant.  I don’t know how long I watched — three minutes?  five? – before I looked at my cell phone (4:58 PM) and back at the sky.  When the river finally ran dry it was 5:11 PM and I made my way to the car with a load of bagged clothes.  From the parking lot I noticed the birds were still moving, the main passage had shifted to the east so they were no longer directly over my head.  I have no idea how long the entire event lasted.

I can’t even hazard a guess at how many birds passed overhead, five hundred per minute?  A thousand per minute? Two thousand? More? The winter roosts of these species can number in the millions.  I don’t know where they were coming from, somewhere from the southwest, the direction of Little Rock.  Somewhere in that direction must be fields loaded with food . . . well, maybe not anymore with that many birds feeding all day.

They were clearly heading to a communal roost, and if you follow the direction on a map you discover they were — you guessed it – heading somewhere towards Beebe, perhaps honing in on a large expanse of phragmites.  While looking at the map this morning I found the apartment complex and traced the line that they were traveling, which was pretty much following the southeast side of Rtes 67/167 . . . which runs right through Beebe.

The next morning I was at the UPS store in Cabot.  While the clerk weighed, measured, estimated, addressed, and otherwise processed my boxes I stared out the large, east-facing windows.  It was already 9:00 AM, the sun had been up since a quarter past seven.  In the distance, above Kroger, I watched a stream of blackbirds heading back in the direction of Little Rock.

Large flocks, according to the BNAOnline, may stretch for miles.  The migratory movements of Red-winged Blackbirds, a clear harbinger of spring in NY, consist of fewer birds — thirty here, forty there – and the birds tend to fly side-by-side instead of in the column I was witnessing.  Over the years, when visiting Arkansas, I’ve seen movements like this in chance encounters, but this was the first time I was staying in the path of one.  The daily ebb and flow of those birds, which may take them fifty miles each way, passes over Cabot this season, and it was incredible to see.  That evening they were heading northeast again, but farther east from my vantage point in the parking lot.

For some reason, at least some portion of that roost took flight after dark on New Year’s Eve, perhaps due to fireworks going off nearby.  Some speculate hail or lightening killed a few thousand (estimates up to 3,000) of the birds over Beebe.  Others speculate it may have been mid-air collisions, which may be more plausible as blackbirds are not known to be adept at flying in darkness and the radar doesn’t seem to show any weather events in that area at the reported time.  Pathologists and others are performing tests to hopefully determine what caused this event.

Whatever the cause, it seems the number of casualties is a tiny compared to what I observed each evening and morning last week.  Blackbirds, for the record, are known as a pest species due to the damage these swarms can do to crops (in fact, measures to control winter roosts and reduce crop damage place humans as a major source of Red-winged Blackbird mortality).  But I have to wonder, how many of the birds I watched were unlucky enough to be part of that mysterious event?

Update: ABC News is reporting, “Trauma as a result of thunder and lightning is being blamed for the death of thousands of blackbirds who rained down out of the Arkansas sky on New Year’s Eve.” According to Dr. George Badley, state veterinarian for the Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission, “There were multiple thunderstorms that night and for several days that week. Red-winged blackbirds fly in large groups and if they got pulled into a thunderstorm, likely lightning struck them. That would be my best guess.”

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 4, 2011 09:31

    Very cool that you were in place to observe this movement.

    • January 4, 2011 11:45

      Thanks, Laura! It was very serendipitous – ordinarily we wouldn’t have spent that amount of time in Cabot, and if we did I would have been outside. Circumstances aligned just right . . . but a bit forbidding that some of those birds met such a horrible end a few days later.
      -Mike

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  1. Best Birding Moments, Part II [Flashback Friday] « Feathers and Flowers

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