Working to solve Beebe’s New Years Eve bird mystery
For the Windwood subdivision in Beebe, Ark., the events of New Years Eve landed the quiet, bedroom community in the news headlines for the day. State and national news crews were on hand all New Years day watching workers dressed in Hazmat suits walk around the one-mile area collecting the bodies of birds that had fallen out of the sky the night before.
At first, the reports said that an estimated 1,000 black birds fell out of the sky around 11:30 p.m. By morning, the estimate rose to 5,000, leaving a huge mess to clean up.
No one knows what caused the thousands of birds to drop dead out of the New Years Eve night sky. Not yet, and the investigation is ongoing.
TV newscasters interviewed panicked residents concerned that no one would tell them if they were in danger. THV11 spoke with Melissa Weatherly who said, “I immediately called mom because I had to go to work, I said you have to come get the kids and get the dog because I don’t know what’s going on. It was horrible; you could not even get down the road without running over hundreds. It was that bad.”
Information was scarce, and continues to be so today. But, unlike the birds, rumors are flying. Some think the birds were poisoned because they are a nuisance this time of year. Some think the birds died because of what is known as “chemtrails,” trails of chemicals spread by planes, and still others think it could be methane gas let into the air after an earthquake. Some go as far as to say that it was a failed attempt by al Qaeda to poison Governor Beebe, targeting the town and killing the birds in error.
The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) air test came back clean for toxins. U.S. Environmental Services crews spent the day Saturday picking up the birds, walking between homes and climbing on roofs, and expect to have the clean-up job completed Sunday.
Alderman Becky Short drove through the neighborhood Saturday, telling people about the cleaning crew and advising them not to touch the dead birds. “No, I’m not worried about it,” she said. “We just hired these people so we can get this mess cleaned up.”
Weatherly was skeptical, despite the city official’s attempts to keep everyone calm. “They’re walking around in masks and I’m wondering do we need to do the same thing because what makes that happen for them to drop out of the sky like that.”
Arkansas Game and Fish released a statement to the media that said the probable causes were lightning, high altitude hail or high levels of stress as a result of fireworks shot off in celebration of the New Year. Initial examinations of the birds showed a significant amount of physical trauma; evidence that the birds were spooked from their roost, then hit while in flight.
“Since it only involved a flock of blackbirds and only involved them falling out of the sky it is unlikely they were poisoned, but a necropsy is the only way to determine if the birds died from trauma or toxin,” AFGF ornithologist Kare Rowe said in the press release.
As the incident is still under investigation, only hypotheses are in the works. KARK4 meteorologist Greg Dee, intrigued by the mystery of the birds falling from the night sky, pulled radar images from the time period it happened, posted them on Facebook and said,
“Radar around Beebe at 11pm last night showed no storms. The closest storm was in eastern Arkansas (Lee County) some 50 miles away. Hail was very unlikely. Radar data from Friday night also indicates that there were only 2 lightning strikes around 11pm last night in the area. The two cloud-to-ground strikes were over 50 miles away… We have no way however of detecting cloud-to-cloud lightning so there is a chance it could have been that.”
Still, something had to have frightened the birds off their usual night-time roost and hit them in mid flight. In an email this morning, AGFC ornithologist Karen Rowe said that initial examination shows trauma, as if the dead birds were hit by something.
“I was on the phone with the wildlife officer at 12:15 am and he had several fall out of the sky while were were talking,” said Rowe. “While this is a very unusual case, I am not deeply alarmed. The birds were in good physical health and initial exams show trauma, so they either succumbed to a freak of nature such as hail or lighting strike, or were caught in the effects of New Years eve fireworks. Something caused the birds to sustain physical trauma while they were airborne, and something cause the roosting birds to flush (blackbirds roost or spend the night in large groups in the treetops) from their roost in the middle of the night.”
While people are concerned about the possibility of disease or some sort of contagion, Rowe does not believe that is the reason for this phenomenon.
“Only a necropsy and tissue analysis will tell us [how the birds died]. The state lab results wiil give us good info and National Wildlife Health Lab in WI will give us detailed info but it will take more time to get that info. They test for anything they can think of. It will take several days to a week to get the results from the state lab and several weeks to a month on the national lab. As far as things go disease-wise in the wildlife world, this one isn’t something I’m deeply concerned about.”
First thing Monday morning, Rowe will be on the phone to the national lab. “I’ll know more tomorrow after I talk to the veterinarians at the NWHC. They’ll have records of similar events (if there are any).”
So, while the situation is uncomfortable and unnerving, information surrounding the mystery of the New Years Eve birds falling out of the sky will be forthcoming. Keep an eye here at First Arkansas News for updates as they become available.
White County resident, freelance writer, photographer and blogger. Email her, visit her at A Bumpy Path and Out in the Back Yard for more neurotic enlightenment and visual stimulation.