On Another Note…Red-Winged Blackbird Tragedy

When thousands of red-winged blackbirds dropped from the sky on New Year’s Eve in the small Arkansas town of Beebe, townspeople and authorities were at a loss to explain it.

A story in the New York Times two days later reported that the birds began falling around 11 pm, “turning the ground nearly black.” A final count found there were approximately 5000 casualties.

The Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission declared that the cause of the birds’ death was “acute physical trauma.” Autopsies clarified it as “blunt trauma to their organs.” As the blackbirds’ stomachs were empty, poisoning was ruled out. The USDA, which commonly poisons large numbers of blackbirds, starlings, and others, often at the behest of farmers, insisted that they had not done so in this case.

The birds apparently died in mid-air, so they were likely startled out of their roosts. Blackbirds do not normally leave their nests at night, so something out of the ordinary must have occurred to make them panic.

Cornell University’s ornithology lab posited violent weather as the culprit. Although a storm had hit Arkansas earlier in the day, it had mostly passed Beebe by the time the birds died, according to a forecaster with the National Weather Service in North Little Rock. Other experts suggested that the birds could have been roused from their roosts by the violence of New Year’s Eve fireworks. The extremes of noise and bright lights from the multiple mini-explosions could have caused them to fly blindly into buildings, concussing themselves.

The next day, in neighboring Louisiana, 500 grackles, blackbirds, and starlings were also found dead.

At Wildlife Watch, we have long railed against the use of fireworks, knowing they not only frighten domestic animals and wildlife, but can cause injury and death. Whatever is determined to be the definitive cause of this tragedy, there is no doubt that wild birds are in jeopardy from human actions on a frightening scale.


Eileen Fay has been an environmental reporter for over twenty years. She is Associate Editor and investigative reporter for the Wildlife Watch Binocular and C.A.S.H. Courier..


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