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Radar: 4K and 20 Blackbirds Downed From The Sky

By Jesse Ferrell, Meteorologist/Community Director
1/01/2012, 7:23:26 AM

UPDATE 1/1/12: It happened again on New Year's Eve 2012, so I think that closes the case: The fireworks were the cause.

UPDATE 12/9/11: "They're baaaaaaaack..." Check this video out. If there is a "birdpacalypse" this New Year's Eve, it was the fireworks for sure.

UPDATE 1/7/11: This article states what I had suspected: "The reality, say biologists, is that these mass die-offs happen all the time and usually are unrelated. Federal records show they happen on average every other day somewhere in North America. Usually, we don't notice them and don't try to link them to each other. Blame technology, says famed Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson. With the Internet, cell phones and worldwide communications, people are noticing events, connecting the dots more." This is exactly what happened as tornado reports "increased" a few years ago - turned out the reports were increasing, but not the storms, because many small tornadoes went undocumented before.

Although for what it's worth, weather-related deaths could be: MSNBC says that more manatees died in cold Florida waters in 2010 than ever before and I just did a new blog entry about how cold waters killed 2,000,000 fish in the Chesapeake earlier this week.

UPDATE: 1/6/11: You can get a great summary article here covering all animal kills, including fish in the Chesapeake and Crabs in England. Unless something new and weather-related comes to light, I won't be doing further research.

UPDATE 1/5/11: A news story today talks about "hundreds of birds killed" in Murray, Kentucky last week. Drudgereport.com also links to a 50-100 bird kill in Sweden, thousands of dead fish in Florida, and "a large (unspecified) number of birds killed" in Texas, all yesterday or today. Potential causes are now including earthquakes. I have added a link to the video that AccuWeather.com TV has done for this event, which uses some of the information in this blog entry.


ORIGINAL REPORT:

"Sing a song of sixpence, A pocket full of rye. Four and twenty blackbirds, Baked in a pie."

I didn't weigh in until today regarding the controversy of the Beebe, Arkansas Bird Kill that happened on New Year's Eve, because I wanted to "get all my ducks in a row" (pun intended). As with all science stories, there has been a good bit of wild speculation and conspiracy theories by the uninformed media, as to what caused 4,000* Red-Winged Blackbirds to fall from the sky.

The short answer, based on this investigation, is that weather was not involved.


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So let's instead look at the science. Above is a 3-D radar view of the bird flock at 10:17 PM CT. It is a wide but short area (like a pancake), between the ground and 2,500 feet (a weak rain shower is also present upper left). You can often see birds (and bats and insects) on radar, coming to roost at night and taking off in the morning. On New Years Eve, the Little Rock NEXRAD radar showed four takeoffs at 9:15, 9:55, 10:15 and 10:55, with the 9:15 exodus depicted here being the most spectacular:

On the animation above, you can see the birds taking off to the southeast of the town. The most important thing to note is that all storm activity had moved far to the east (40-60 miles by my estimate) before the first takeoff. Although lightning can strike outside of storms at nearly that distance, it is extremely rare and certainly wouldn't have happened four times.


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As a result, I think we can rule lightning, hail and major thunderstorm turbulence out, even though there are precedents for storm damaged birds. Our initial investigation cited "lightning in the area" as a possible cause, and Cornell Ornithologist John Fitzpatrick was quoted as saying the cause was most likely a storm:

"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... driven into a 'washing-machine type thunderstorm.' Fitzpatrick said birds can quickly die of exposure if their feathers get excessively waterlogged."


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The question now becomes: Would birds normally take off from their roost after sunset? My previous research regarding birds on radar says no: They flock to their roosts at sunset and away at sunrise. Could we be mistaking the data on the radar image above and it's actually bats? Based on the blog I did before about bats on radar, and it only involved one long takeoff that started near dusk, so probably not.

Therefore, invoking Occam's Razor, the most likely explanation is that the birds were scared from their roost by a loud noise several times, and, not being able to see well at night, they were disoriented and ran into objects (and each other) in their hasty escape. This scenario is outlined in Science News, with a note that the autopsies support it. What caused the noise that spooked the birds?

Who knows, but it wasn't weather-related (the Science News article quotes a local resident hearing "cannon noises" which could have been New Years Eve fireworks or gunshots, though they were a little early. Cannons have been used to try to get rid of these type of birds before, but have had mixed success. The fact that the times were so similar for the four takeoffs points to a human cause, whether they intended to spook the birds or not.

The only thing going against that conclusion is that we have another 500 blackbirds downed in Louisiana yesterday, plus 100,000 fish dead in Arkansas last week. This could indicate a wider disease problem, though it could also being the media putting two and two together to make five -- kills of this sort probably happen fairly frequently, they just don't get media attention unless they happen in an urban area. Once the media has widely reported on them, paranoia ensues which garners coverage for additional similar stories that would not have otherwise been reported widely.

P.S.: There is one other possibility, and I may be reading too much into the data here. With the first takeoff, the radar heights (which may or may not be accurate -- sometimes the beam bounces between atmospheric layers or even hits the ground), ranged from 1,500 to 2,500 feet. But then something interesting happened at 4:30Z. What I presume to be a small rain shower passed over and appeared to be drawing some of the birds up into it, as shown on this 3D radar image. FoxNews reported that the birds fell "about a mile long and a half-mile wide" and this shower is about 1.5 by .5 miles.


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Could the birds have been drawn upwards into the rain shower, where they became disoriented, wet, and fell to the ground? Possibly, but even strong thunderstorms have trouble hoisting small hail, much less something as large as a bird, and this was a very weak shower at best. Could there have been strong winds at this level behind the frontal passage that could have helped? Maybe, though NEXRAD radar winds were indicated at only 30 knots, by VAD and by Velocity data. All in all, this scenario seems unlikely because, if it happened this time, it would happen much more often and we'd hear about it.

*Media estimates of the number of birds affected range from 1,000 to 5,000.

What do you think happened? Leave me a Comment below. Most of our Facebook Fans thought it was not lightning, and a few said it could be a government conspiracy. Generally, I think that ineptness, red tape, and the Internet would keep our government from forming and maintaining a good conspiracy, so my money's on the loud noise.

Jesse Ferrell


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The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of AccuWeather, Inc. or AccuWeather.com

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