What's up with birds falling out of the sky?
January 5, 2011 2:51 PM   Subscribe

Why are birds falling out of the sky?

What is up with the thousands of birds that fell out of the sky in Arkansas, Louisiana, and now Sweden?

Are they related to the dead fish that have been washing up? What are the leading hypotheses about what the hell is going on? One article, a few days ago, suggested lightning. That seems highly improbable.
posted by abirae to Science & Nature (38 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
This article at io9 summarises some of the theories.
posted by TheOtherGuy at 2:56 PM on January 5, 2011

they aren't related to the dead fish. for those to be related, something would have had to kill a bunch of one species of fish, hit nothing in either of the state parks on either side, nothing else in the entire arkansas river, and then kill a bunch of birds 125 miles away.
posted by nadawi at 3:00 PM on January 5, 2011

Coincidence, confirmation bias. Fish kill is usually low oxygen levels. Birds could be hail, poor eyesight of blackbirds who are spooked, don't fly at night and simply flew into the ground.
posted by fixedgear at 3:04 PM on January 5, 2011

I don't know, but this guy made a mixtape — "one hour of music, all related (more or less) to the theme of bird death."
posted by mbrock at 3:06 PM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the links!

As the i09 article points, the birds are more likely to be roosting on the ground during the night when the fireworks would go off. Why would they be traumatized by the explosion, then go up in the air only to fall down en masse? It seems so weird.

Here's a crude map of the bird die-offs as well as an air-force base and weapons arsenal in Arkansas. The air force base is 20 miles from Beebe, the town where the first fall was noticed.
posted by abirae at 3:08 PM on January 5, 2011

Have you ever seen birds react to a sudden, loud noise? They're not going to stay on the ground once that fireworks display starts.

I know the Prison Planet crowd is huge on the Government weapons program, which I'm assuming you're leaning toward based on the air force base trivia you dropped. It's also worth consideration that it's virtually impossible to be anywhere in the United States and not be within 50 miles of some sort of military facility or the other.
posted by absalom at 3:12 PM on January 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

Birdfalls aren't a new phenonemon by any means. TweetsOfOld has been running a few, if it's a comfort, such as this one from 1896. They often coincide with a long period of cold weather, as entire flocks are unusually weak and vulnerable. Odd trivia: Aristotle had a theory that lasted for millennia that swallows hibernated underwater, because fishermen used to pull out masses of them from the ocean in the winter.. actually it was just exhausted flocks collapsing en masse mid-migration.

I doubt the Swedish event would make the news if it couldn't be reported as part of a 'pattern'.
posted by Erasmouse at 3:15 PM on January 5, 2011 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: Theres some weird stuff just south of Beebe between 367 and 31 just north of Ward. Theres something that looks like a golf course, and then some patchy stuff to the west of it that I can't identify. And some bullseye looking things (that might be an irrigation system or aerator). Does anyone know what that stuff is?
posted by abirae at 3:15 PM on January 5, 2011

it has nothing to do with the air force base. pretty much ever scientist and group that deals with birds say "things like this really happen all the time." in fact, here is a case from australia in 2007

just to put a little occam's razor on it - how would the air force base be related to a bunch of birds dying in a residential area - an event that according to some articles has verified eye witnesses? and furthermore, how would that be related to sweden or louisiana?

these stories are making the news because there's a fervor over it. the only reason you're hearing about so many of them is because it's driving page views this week.
posted by nadawi at 3:18 PM on January 5, 2011

The circles are from irrigation systems, and the patchy stuff looks like a partially logged tree farm to me.
posted by dolface at 3:22 PM on January 5, 2011

Well, basically all of Arkansas along I-40 that isn't Little Rock is farmland, so yeah, it's pretty much as you suggest.
posted by absalom at 3:22 PM on January 5, 2011

dn writes that the birds in Falköping (around 50-100) did not die of an infection or something similar, but through some type of violence; either because a flock flew into cars, or panicked in some manner and flew into obstacles.
Jackdaws in this area assemble in large flocks of many hundreds in the towns during the winter. The local papers always publish a bunch of angry reader's letters asking for the city councils to kill those "flying rats," which never happens. So there could be yet another explanation: that someone took things into his own hands. In any case they don't seem to have fallen out of the sky.
posted by Namlit at 3:23 PM on January 5, 2011

Whoops, not a tree farm it's the holland bottoms wildlife management area.
posted by dolface at 3:25 PM on January 5, 2011

Response by poster: Erasmouse, this sounds quite reasonable. Cold snap + selection bias = quite possibly what we have here. It's reassuring to hear that this sort of thing has happened in the past. I don't know whether the number of dead birds is a great many in the historical scheme of things.

Thanks for the tip,absalom. I'm wearing my tin foil hat just because it's handy. A large explosion or very fast low-flying plane both seemed like things that could cause the physical trauma to stun the birds, so I looked for an Air Force base.

Basically, it seems like the possibilities are:

Environmental conditions:
Cold air pocket
Low oxygen region?
Electromagnetic something...

Physical trauma:
Explosion (fireworks, weapon)
Low flying thing (change in air currents? sonic boom?)

Poison cloud? Poisoned water? Poisoned bugs?

Some kind of bird disease.

And maybe some selection bias in the mix...
posted by abirae at 3:27 PM on January 5, 2011

the circles are irrigation - the entire area around there looks like farm land in various states of growth/non-growth.
posted by nadawi at 3:27 PM on January 5, 2011

toxins are absolutely not a possibility in the arkansas case. they've been tested - they weren't poisoned and they weren't toxic. area pets ate the birds and suffered no ill. they have massive internal injuries, the kind sustained when a bunch of birds fly into each other.
posted by nadawi at 3:29 PM on January 5, 2011

Yeah: mostly Rice farms, and some soy.
posted by absalom at 3:31 PM on January 5, 2011

Response by poster: dolface, it sure does look like a tree farm. What I'm looking at is a ways north of Holland bottoms, but now that you mention it, it does look very much like a tree farm or logging area.

Trees! I should have known they were behind this!
posted by abirae at 3:37 PM on January 5, 2011

Confirmation bias.

Little birdfalls (which are quite frequent, as noted above) all over the world are being reported after the unusually large birdfall in the US.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:51 PM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: As absalom suggested I checked out Prison Planet. Fun stuff.

Their article points out that there was also a fish die off in Arkansas near Bebee, in the 20 mile stretch between the Ozark Dam and route 109. Admittedly, I could not find an "Ozark Dam", but what do we find along the river, about 20 miles west of 109? That's right, a tree farm.

Dun dun dunnnnnnn.
posted by abirae at 3:52 PM on January 5, 2011

Response by poster: Okay, just to seal the deal that I am a paranoid kook:

Looking at the region, there's a nursery at 4903 Quail Ridge Road Ozark.

At the "tree farm" near the fish die off, there are a number of unlabeled roads, and when I tried to google the nearest labled road, I got the Army Corps of Engineers, in the tree-farmey looking area of my first suspicious tree farm. And if you scroll south you get more unlabeled roads and some things that look like barracks.

And also, a stone quarry. Maybe explosions from the quarries stunned the birds and fish?

Sorry, I don't know how to search for this, but is there a way to find out what a thing on google maps is?(Like a reverse look up?)
posted by abirae at 4:13 PM on January 5, 2011

fearmongering media engendering confirmation bias / bloggers with functioning pattern recognition but lacking critical thinking
posted by radiosilents at 4:27 PM on January 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

Pigs stole their eggs, duh.
posted by knowles at 5:18 PM on January 5, 2011 [10 favorites]

Response by poster: Just in case anyone would care to join me in tinfoil land:

Here's an article about th ebird fall in Beebe that says the fall was a one mile area that included Windwood Drive. The tree farm (which, based on it's stripe pattern, I now think might be a retired mine, maybe for something exciting like bauxite, but I really don't know) is about 2 miles from there. The only other exciting thing within the area is Arkansas State University (less than 1 mile away).

Here are some nice maps of the weather during that bird fall. Something seems to erupt over Beebe. I don't know if lightning would or would not make a burst like that. Whatever it is seems to have increased the temperature (if I am reading the map correctly) in a localized area that did not drift to the north east the way the other currents appear to.

So now I think it's either lightning, or something at Arkansas State that briefly heated or ionized the air, or messed with magnetic fields in the area.

posted by abirae at 5:33 PM on January 5, 2011

Response by poster: Sorry, that's a lot of bold.
posted by abirae at 5:33 PM on January 5, 2011

Nadawi, I think the birds in Esperance Australia died from lead poisoning (PDF)
posted by ginky at 6:45 PM on January 5, 2011

Do you remember the Summer of the Shark? That terrible summer of 2001 when sharks ruined every beach trip? Turned out it never happened, the press reported typical random events as a scary new trend.

I think we're seeing the same thing here. A couple of random events, coupled by a 24/7 internet news maw and now the birds are dying! And the fish! What used to be a minor local story becomes international news.

Don't worry in a few days the East Coast will have a blizzard and everyone will forget about the birds.
posted by JohntheContrarian at 6:56 PM on January 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


I am uncomfortable with my name being associated with anything resembling a recommendation of Prison Planet. I'm a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic. So I also believe in Occam's Razor, as apparently does the guy from that blog post you just posted, who also posits the fireworks theory.

However, that doesn't mean a mass of birds would not show up on radar and you could very well be seeing a mass flock of birds in a radar image. The Japanese attack force that went after Pearl Harbor was actually detected by US Radar, but was misinterpreted (I believe, at least according to Tora, Tora, Tora) as a flock of birds.

Also: To the best of my understanding, you are not reading that image at all correctly and mixing up a couple of different things conceptually in your reading of the images, but I'm willing to be wrong on this point. (Infared heat imaging and radar, I would say, but IANAP). Radar does not measure temperature, it measures density. So, what you are seeing is greater and lesser dense areas of cover or precipitation (presumably rain or clouds, buts possibly space ships or birds, I guess, or anything else substantial enough to reflect whatever kind electromagnetic waves)
posted by absalom at 6:59 PM on January 5, 2011

My biologist friend sent all of us non-biologists this link to explain that this isn't as unheard of as the news is making it out to be.

For example, from early September to late November of this year, around 4,300 (that's FOUR THOUSAND, THREE HUNDRED) fowl died in Minnesota due to parasites. I never heard of this, did anyone else? I think it's the suddenness and the weirdness of this particular (blackbird) event that has all the news directors going bonkers.
posted by cooker girl at 7:10 PM on January 5, 2011

pretty much ever scientist and group that deals with birds say "things like this really happen all the time."

I'm a biologist. This kind of stuff happens all the time. Fish kills are VERY common, usually due to low oxygen (natural or due to eutrophication or a spill) but sometimes due to temperature or disease. As for the birds that particular species roost in trees and flock, if a flock is flushed into the air at night during a storm they can easily be killed by high altitude hail or collisions with stuff. Red winged blackbirds aren't very long lived anyways, a large proportion die each winter, up to half of a flock. Many small bird species lose so much body weight staying warm each night that their day to day survival depends on getting enough food during daylight to shiver through the dark. Anything that disturbs them when they're weak can lead to major die offs.

There is a reason it's considered Very Bad Form to flush game in the winter. They are using all their resources to stay alive till spring.
posted by fshgrl at 9:29 PM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Cooker girl, I agree, it's the suddenness that put this in the news. From what I've read the birds all died within a 1 mile radius over the span of half an hour. (Some sources say the entire evening.)

From what I've heard, fish kills are particularly common near power plants on occasions when warm water is allowed into rivers, altering the oxygen content, and a bunch of fish go belly up. In the case of the Arkensas fish kill, the kill happened to be very close to a coal burning power plant, but the fish that died were all bottom feeders, so it seems that the cause may be more complex.

For the record, I don't necessarily think there's some vast conspiracy afoot. I'm skeptical too. I just saw so many articles jumping on the "lightning" or "fireworks" explanations without really explaining the reasoning, and it just rang false to me.

Poking around the map, there are numerous mines, quarries, military facilities, power plants, paper mills and other industrial facilities, so I don't think it's entirely unreasonable to think that humans may have had a hand in the birds demise. On the other hand, as several commenters have pointed out, "nature" does a fine job of killing critters without human assistance.

It does appear that I have been misinterpreting the radar images. It's hard for me to wrap my head around weather density, but the interpretation of that circle as the flock of birds seems reasonable. Do thousands of birds roost close enough together to be simultaneously roused by a firecracker? It seems plausable. They could then be stunned by a second firecracker, lightning, or one of those other high density areas careening close to, or through the circle (hail storm?).

Now the circular patch seems to diffuse towards the south east, even though it looks like the wind is moving to the north east. Am I reading this correctly? Do birds typically fly perpendicular to the wind? Because they are essentially flying into the storm rather than away from it. Also, by the scale of the image, the cloud of birds is more than 3 miles wide. It just seems odd.
posted by abirae at 10:57 PM on January 5, 2011

I just saw so many articles jumping on the "lightning" or "fireworks" explanations without really explaining the reasoning, and it just rang false to me.

Why? birds are killed by lightning all the time and fireworks are of course going to flush roosting flocks.
posted by fshgrl at 11:38 PM on January 5, 2011

As for the scale of things watch this video.
posted by fshgrl at 11:41 PM on January 5, 2011

just saw so many articles jumping on the "lightning" or "fireworks" explanations without really explaining the reasoning, and it just rang false to me.

That's because you don't have enough information to understand why those explanations are actually quite sound. Part of being a skeptic is knowing what you don't know--someone like Alex Jones thinks everyone has as little information as he does, whereas skeptics know that other people are more informed on particular situations than they are.

Right now, with all respect, you're sounding awfully close to a Creationist type saying "But nobody knows how evolution happens!" when actually lots of people know very well how evolution happens. People know very well how birdfalls occur, because they happen all the time. I agree with you that the phenomenon has not been explained well in the mass media, but look at the links fshgirl and others have dropped here for more detailed explanations by scientists.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:04 PM on January 6, 2011

blunt force trauma - again repeated that something caused them to panic, then die as they flew into each other and cars and poles and the like.

the line at the end of this article is a good one i think: "For blackbirds alone, there have been 16 incidents in which 1,000 or more birds have died in single events over the past five years, he said."
posted by nadawi at 2:54 PM on January 6, 2011

Response by poster: It's also notable that people in Beebe reported hearing a loud boom(s?) like a cannon, but I haven't read any reports where witnesses claimed to have seen fireworks. How come nobody saw these awesome "industrial strength" fireworks? (Okay, I just may not have come across the visual confirmation of fireworks, feel free to correct me if you've found some.)

At the risk of sounding like a Creationist: (thanks)

I've noticed that Beebe Arkansas, the town in Texas, the town in Louisiana and the town in Sweden are all locations with natural gas mining within 2 miles from the bird fall (Actually for the Swedish town I found a mention of a Biogas plant which seems similar).

As I understand it, natural gas includes methane, which can combust to carbon monoxide. An explosion (possibly precipitated by heaters used because of the recent cold snap) could send up a plume of carbon monoxide which might possibly be the burst on the radar field. A drifting gas cloud could also explain why the burst in the image appears to be three miles wide (I confess, I have trouble reading the scale of that map, but it looks like a big ass cloud.)

Carbon monoxide would leave the birds hypoxic, but since it binds to hemoglobin, the birds may not immediately appear cyanotic. Hypoxic birds get woozy, fall out of sky, and die of their injuries.
posted by abirae at 5:11 PM on January 10, 2011

Response by poster: Okay, maybe the natural gas link isn't as clear cut as I thought, but these are all areas with heavy industry within a very small radius of where the birds fell:

Beebe, AK: Calfrac

Ore City, TX: Key Energy, Enbridge, USS/Lonestar Steel

Faenza, Italy CONSORZIO FAENTINO UTENTI GAS (gas welding), Energy Casa, Intesa Coop("largest fruit producer in Italy" - not petrochemical, but could produce methane)

Labarre, LA: Morganza Gas Sweetener, Amoco Production Co., BP America Production Co.

Falkoping, Sweden: Nordkalk (limestone, and limestone based peroxides), Biogas plant, Ranstadverket retired uranium mine

Dead fish in Ozark,, AK: Army Corps of Engineers, two waste water treatment plants
posted by abirae at 6:49 PM on January 10, 2011

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