Arkansas town probes ‘intentional’ New Year’s blackbird deaths

Kris Alingod – AHN News Contributor

Beebe, AR, United States (AHN) – Authorities in southern Arkansas are investigating the deaths of hundreds of red-winged blackbirds during New Year celebrations over the weekend.

Residents in the small town of Beebe woke up to dead birds littering yards and streets Sunday morning, a year after thousands of the birds fell from the sky due to fireworks.

Police and officials from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission believe the die-off happened around midnight on Saturday after someone purposefully set off fireworks near the birds’ roost.

“It appears that it was an intentional act to spook the blackbirds in an attempt to recreate last year,” Lt. Brian Duke told KTHV. “Technically they were not violating any laws. There is an ordinance stating that they can shoot fireworks.”

Last year, nearly 5,000 red-winged blackbirds were killed in Beebe due to blunt-force trauma. The National Wildlife Health Center and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission both concluded that the blackbirds, which have poor night vision and do not fly at night, had collided with structures and power lines after New Year’s Eve fireworks flushed them out of their roosts and forced them to fly at lower altitudes.

To prevent another die-off, animal control officers were sent to patrol areas Saturday night. Dozens of birds were later reported dead despite an emergency ban on fireworks. About 200 blackbirds were killed after someone set off fireworks near a tree used by the animals to roost.

Reaction from the local community has ranged from concern to dismissive.

Thousands of blackbirds roost in Beebe from fall to spring. The animals are considered a nuisance by some residents, who must clean and paint their homes due to bird droppings.

Michelle Johnston posted on Facebook, “I live in Beebe in the subdivision where the birds are and we are way overpopulated! Who cares if they die?! This is just ridiculous!!”

“They could kill thousands tonight in Beebe and not make a dent in them!” Diana Alexander Layrock added. “There are millions of them!!!!! And they are nasty!!!!”

Charles Moore, a longtime resident, told KATV he was convinced by the fireworks theory only this weekend. He also reflected on a development planned this year in Beebe that will reduce the number of roosts.

“The time is growing near that the birds will be leaving so I’m going to be a little sad about that,” he said.

The die-off in Arkansas comes two weeks after thousands of eared grebes crash landed onto highways and parking lots in southern Utah.

Officials believe the migratory birds were confused by snow and artificial lights. Stormy weather had covered roads and open spaces in Cedar City in snow, which appeared to shimmer like a body of water.

Birds, migratory or otherwise, face a similar risk from bright lights and glass windows from tall structures, which disorient their natural ability to navigate using natural light. The animals can either crash against the building or get “trapped” by light, causing them to circle the structure for hours until they die from exhaustion.

Cloudy or foggy conditions exacerbate the danger by forcing the animals to fly lower. Other causes of bird deaths include habitat loss, poaching, diving for bait used for longline fishing, and poisoning from lead used in old paint, fishing tackle and ammunition in upland hunting. Chicks also die of dehydration from being unknowingly fed regurgitated food containing plastic and other trash floating in water.

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