the observatory

Bye, Bye Blackbirds

Bizarre reports of dead birds and fish enliven a slow news week
January 5, 2011

With remakes of classic films all the rage, it may be time for Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller The Birds to be redone. Scene: Beebe, Arkansas, population 4,930. Time: New Year’s Eve. Event: Local fireworks. Action: Thousands of red-winged blackbirds falling from the sky.

The bizarre mystery of the dead blackbirds of Beebe may never be solved. But during a slow news week, the event, combined with a big fish kill in the Arkansas River and a subsequent rain of dead birds in Louisiana, made for lots of copy, television, tweeting, blogging, clever headlines, and conspiracy speculation for several days running.

For those of us obsessed with birds and Hitchcock (and fans of Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor in the 1963 film version of Daphne du Maurier’s novella), it’s time for a recap of what we know, what we don’t know, and where this modern-day thriller is headed (if you follow it on Google News, you know the blackbird story is clearly not over yet).

*First reports: A January 1 AP report from Beebe, headlined “More than 1,000 dead birds fall from sky in Ark,” got the ball rolling with a just-the-facts story that the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission began receiving reports at 11:30 p.m. New Year’s Eve of dead birds falling from the sky in a one-mile area. “Commission ornithologist Karen Rowe said the birds showed physical trauma, and she speculated that ‘the flock could have been hit by lightning or high-altitude hail.’ The commission said that New Year’s Eve revelers shooting off fireworks in the area could have startled the birds from their roost and caused them to die from stress.”

*First officer on the scene: “Shortly after I arrived there were still birds falling from the sky,” said Arkansas Game and Fish Commission wildlife officer Robby King, according to an Arkansas Times blog post by Max Brantley. King collected about sixty-five dead birds to be sent for testing to the state Livestock and Poultry Commission lab and the National Wildlife Health Center lab in Madison, Wisconsin.

*Numbers update: After the initial reports, the estimated toll of dead Arkansas blackbirds quickly rose to 3,000 and then as much as 5,000, according to The New York Times. That’s a whole lot of blackbirds. There were no actual reports of people being hit by falling blackbirds, although the Times quoted bystander Christy Stevens, who was standing outside among the smoking crowd at a New Year’s Eve party. “One of them almost hit my best friend in the head,” she said. “We went inside after that.” The falling birds did hit houses and cars, and littered lawns and streets, however. Aerial flights found no other birds outside the initial one-mile area.

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*Jan. 3: the plot thickens: “It Gets Weirder: Hundreds of Dead Blackbirds Line Louisiana Highway,” noted Eyder Peralta in an NPR story. About 500 blackbirds and starlings littered a small stretch of highway in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana, about 300 miles south of Beebe. While some suggested this was a “controlled killing” of the pesky birds, wildlife veterinarians suggested that the birds might have flown into a power line.

*Best videos: Check out the Associated Press video report on YouTube for scenes of dead birds being picked up by folks in scary white hazmat suits (with green gloves) in Louisiana and Arkansas. The report says there are no signs the two events are related, and that testing of what killed the birds may take a month. In the dumb speculation department, we have this comment from Capt. Eddie Collum of the Beebe Police Department: “Some of them (the birds) were a little panicked thinking it was the end of the world.”

On Tuesday, Arkansas’s KATV-7 broadcast newly released New Year’s Eve 911 calls to the Beebe police department, with dispatcher Mary calming down concerned citizens. Caller: “Yes, ma’am, I was wondering why all the birds are, like, dying…” Dispatcher: “We are trying to figure that out. We have Game and Fish out here, County is out here, and we’re trying to figure out what’s going on.” Caller: “I don’t know if this is silly or not but…” Dispatcher: “You’ve got birds everywhere?” Caller: “Yes.”

*Don’t forget the fish: Turns out that last week, up to 100,000 dead drum fish washed up along the shores of the Arkansas River near the city of Ozark. The mass fish kill was reported last Thursday by a tugboat operator, but didn’t become big news until the bizarre blackbird mystery erupted in Beebe, about 125 miles away. reported that the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission was once again on the case, with spokesman Keith Stephens saying that it will take a month to determine the cause of the fish deaths. Experts suggested, however, that there appeared to be no link between the fish and bird kills, saying that the drum fish likely died of some disease.

Nonetheless, given the coincidental timing, news reports couldn’t help irresponsibly linking the two: “Massive fish kill deepens dead bird mystery,” read the headline on a January 3 NBC Nightly News video. In the U.K., Wednesday’s Mirror trumpeted: “500 blackbirds drop dead from the sky days after 100,000 fish and 5,000 birds are found dead.”

*Which brings us to the conspiracy theories: Naturally, the blogosphere was abuzz with them, with heavy Facebook traffic and online comments galore. Some possibilities: sign of God’s wrath; ran into UFOs; government weapons testing; you name it. The Atlantic Wire’s Caitlin Dickson took a more lighthearted look in her roundup of some of the “top tweets,” including this one from The New York Times’s Brian Stelter: “Regarding the bird die-offs: have we ruled out ‘viral promotion for an apocalyptic movie’ yet?’”

*Clever headline nominees: “Blackbirds dead, not singing in the night,” à la the Beatles, from the Arkansas Times. “Four and twenty blackbirds (plus) fall from the sky,” à la the nursery rhyme, from’s Little Rock blog. “Signs of the Aflockalypse” from The Washington Post. “Aflockalypse” reverberated elsewhere, so it’s the unofficial winner.

*The Flocks Heard ‘Round the World: As is often the case, the Arkansas and Louisiana dead animal media flurry triggered a worldwide rash of similar reports, from Sweden to New Zealand. As Melissa Bell noted in a Washington Post blog post on Wednesday:

It seems sudden bird deaths occur more often than one would think. About 500 million to 1 billion birds are killed every year and mass deaths have been noted about 16 times in the past 20 years, the News Hour reports. Rather than a divine sign, the cause is likely human: fireworks scaring the birds, toxic chemical killing the fish or power lines tangling up the birds. There are also reports that some of the deaths could be natural: the Chesapeake Bay carnage may be due to “cold-weather stress,” NPR reports.

So, when one news report about dead birds becomes big news, a measly few dead birds anywhere in the world becomes big news. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

*Conclusion: Actually, I’m keeping my own investigation of the dramatic saga secret, working on a screenplay, “Bye, Bye Blackbirds,” and awaiting movie offers.

Cristine Russell is a CJR contributing editor and the immediate past-president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter.