Radio Interview About Dead Blackbirds

January 5, 2011
Red-winged BlackbirdRed-winged Blackbird by ashockenberry via Birdshare.

There’s been an immense amount of concern and confusion about what caused thousands of Red-winged Blackbirds in Arkansas to drop dead in the middle of the night on New Year’s Eve. The general public and media outlets have been calling us with questions, but it’s been very hard for anyone—even the biologists working on the scene—to pin down causes this soon after the event.

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This morning Hofstra University’s radio station, on Long Island, aired an 11-minute interview with Cornell Lab scientist Kevin McGowan. We’re reposting it here because Dr. McGowan gives a good summary of what the likely causes may have been (as well as some things that probably didn’t cause it), why the well-publicized fish kill 200 miles away was almost certainly not involved, why urban birds may be better able to avoid disaster than rural flocks, and related topics. It’s a fascinating and level-headed discussion amid all the uncertainty. Audio courtesy of WRHU.

Also: listen to Dr. McGowan discuss the issue on National Public Radio’s On Point radio program, from Thursday, Jan 6, 2011.

Meanwhile, workers in Arkansas and Louisiana seem to be getting a clearer idea of what likely happened, according to this brief summary posted to the Lousiana Birding listserv by Audubon’s Melanie Driscoll. The causes are thought to be fireworks in Arkansas and power line collisions in Louisiana.

In McGowan’s interview, he touches on one last issue to keep in mind. “Birds hit things all the time, but usually it’s only one or two, and so we don’t really notice it,” he says. In fact, we know that hundreds of millions of birds die every year from flying into windows, buildings, power lines, radio antennas, cell towers, and wind turbines. That number dwarfs the present event, but it goes unnoticed because it’s spread across the country and throughout the year.

This news from Arkansas should inspire us to pay attention to the things we can do to make these more dispersed, less newsworthy tragedies less commonplace (see also Audubon president David Yarnold’s CNN op-ed yesterday.) That includes making our structures and towns as safe for birds as possible, by turning off skyscraper lights at night, making our windows safe for birds, keeping cats indoors, and a host of other small actions that can add up to great effect.



  • nancy Shomo

    Now there is a mass bird death in Sweden. What is going on? Remeber how Rachel Carson found out the facts about pesticides! Is there perhaps something going on here that is not being noticed. I hope that Cornell, as the foremost expert in this field is carrying out careful investigation into this matter. Perhaps global communication is a good thing because now we become more aware of what is going on all over the world. If mass deaths are so common we should be hearing more about them.Put the Twitter site to real bird use- how many people are finding masses of dead birds?I hope this is not just being swept under the rug as a natural occurance and nothing to worry about. I think there is a true concern here and whether or not it is made public, researchers should be very involved in this mystery.

  • Ken Salzman

    Not knowing what the weather was like in the Beebe area on New Year’s eve this suggestion may not be credible, but has the possibility of a microburst been ruled out?

  • Hi Ken, I believe that the weather that night in Beebe was reported as calm and clear. Microbursts and other violent weather have been blamed for high numbers of deaths in the past, but do not seem to be the case in this instance. Thanks for writing in.- Hugh

  • Kare

    If you go to the BBC news , the birds in Sweden were run over by a lorry. The truck driver said they were in the road because they had salted the roads.

  • dK

    “Every bird dies eventually”


  • Kristin

    I am 52. There was no Internet for at least half my life. There were, however, TV and news papers.

    I never remember a story of mass bird or fish deaths.

    If this many people died at one time in one place, there would be no argument that “all people die sometime.”

  • I hope Dr. McGowan’s comment about “every bird dies eventually” isn’t taken out of context or given more weight than it should. Knowing Kevin as I do, I’m positive he wasn’t implying that these mass blackbird deaths are of no importance to us. His remark was a minor observation building toward the point that great numbers of birds die each year, but we don’t notice the majority of deaths since they happen individually and inconspicuously.

  • 8th January , another case of dead black birds , guess where ? In Romania ! Dead black birds.

  • jane robison

    There was a similar incidence in Austin TX in Jan. 07(Time Magazine). Autopsies revealed the birds,grackles, had high levels of parasites and the weakened birds succumbed to a drop in air tempurature.

  • Sheila

    300 dead birds in Athens , Alabama. Dead on Interstate. Explanation given ….hit by car! all 300 hit by car. Pictures of the 300 birds on our local news clearly show all these dead birds laying on a blanket of white snow….. no signs of trauma , not a drop of blood or feathers strewn about…but yet they were hit by car! And not 1 person has stepped forward to say they were driving down the road and their vehicle hit 300 birds! Don’t you think if you hit 300 birds ….it would freak you out enough to tell someone! Something isn’t adding up here at all!

  • Sheila
  • Sheila

    I am having a hard time believing that none of these incidents around the world are related! I also think the explanations given are very WEAK to say the least! Something does not add up with all the reports in the media!

  • Miyoko Chu

    According to the USGS, which keeps official records within the U.S., there have been 188 incidents in the past 10 years involving the deaths of more than 1,000 birds. This averages out to about 18 per year, or more than one a month. The causes include disease and other factors. There are probably additional events that go unreported–and that’s just within the U.S. We just don’t hear about them all the time because they’re not considered sensational news. For details from USGS, visit

  • D Tucci

    There may be another explanation….human encroachment on bird habitat…and all wildlife. Problems with deer in “people’s” yards and on the roads causing deer-car collisions. For the birds, more humans = more roads, more electric lines, more buildings/windows, more human disruption/fireworks. People just don’t get the implications of human population growth. Denial? Ignorance?

  • I agree with Miyoko’s comment. This has probably been happening for a long time and nobody has really ever said anything until the Arkansas incident. Once the Arkansas incident was reported and became sensational news, everybody has been reporting mass bird death’s.

  • Emily

    I just read a poorly written article about the USDA admitting to mass bird poisonings:

    Is this actually true?