Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The dead blackbird thing.

Much has been made of the news that 5000 dead blackbirds fell from the sky onto a small Arkansas town at the turning of the year. ~11:30PM on New Year's Eve. Conspiracy theories and omens abound, but I will propose my own theory: a conspiracy between fireworks and the migratory behavior of blackbirds.

There are several species of blackbirds in North America (e.g. Red-winged Blackbirds, Grackles, Starlings), that tend to migrate in large mix-species flocks. And when I say large, I mean blot out the sun, river in the sky, ornithophobe's nightmare large. Frequently in the hundreds of thousands, not rarely in the millions of birds. I was working at the Long Point Bird Observatory (in southern Ontario) one day in late November when one of these blackbird flocks went by, too thickly to count, for an hour and a half. As soon as we saw them we rushed out and closed the mist-nets we had put up to catch birds. While these nets work well for catching a flock of a dozen chickadees (which we would then measure, band and release), a thousand blackbirds hitting the nets all at once will collapse them, potentially killing large numbers of the birds. Many of the nets had several dozen blackbirds in them within the first minute, and it was a struggle to free them faster than new birds got caught. We couldn't close the nets until they were empty, and we couldn't stop catching them without closing the nets, so thick and fast they came, despite the fact that the main stream of birds was far above our heads, and despite each bird tending to avoid places where humans were standing. We put brightly colored cloths in the nets to make them more visible, but still we couldn't keep up. The nets began to sag under the weight of birds, each of which weighed only a few ounces. Only when the course of the avian river shifted significantly to one side were we able to empty and close the nets, and then stand and gape at the immensity of the flock. That night they all settled in a nearby wetland, densely and within a surprisingly small area.

Now by New Years Eve, these flocks would not be in Ontario, but in places more like Arkansas. It is reported that a wooded area in Beebe was being used as a nighttime roost for several hundred thousand blackbirds. My guess is that somebody was setting off fireworks near that wood, and scared the bejesus out of at least half a million blackbirds. Fireworks are used in agriculture to scare blackbirds out of fields, and to uninitiated birds, they are quite terrifying. So this river of blackbirds leaps into the air whirl around and around as the rockets and fountains go up. Now blackbirds, like most songbirds, have very poor night vision, and frequently smack into things if startled up at night. So maybe one in a thousand in the whirling disoriented mass smacked into a lamp, a sign, a building, each other. They go quite fast enough to kill themselves crashing headlong into hard objects, and can rebound several feet. The birds seemed to have died of blunt trauma, as from a crash.

Or it could be a sign of the end times.

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