New Year starts with dead birds and fish

The fish – all of the same ‘drum’ species – littered the banks of a 20-mile stretch of the Arkansas River near Ozark, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC) said. State wildlife officials are conducting tests to find out what killed them. Keith Stephens, of the AGFC, said fish kills occurred every year, but the magnitude of this one was unusual. “The fish kill only affected one species of fish,” he told CNN. “If it was from a pollutant, it would have affected all of the fish, not just drum fish.” Meanwhile, officials are also investigating the mystery of up to 5,000 dead blackbirds in the town of Beebe, around 125 miles from where the fish were found. The creatures began falling from the sky late on December 31 and continued into the next day, witnesses said. “I came out here and saw a bird drop,” said resident Stephen Bryant.

“It was horrible, you could not even get down the road without running over hundreds,” said fellow resident Melissa Weatherly. Beebe is a town of about 4,500 people located 30 miles northeast of the state capital, Little Rock. Residents were not evacuated as a test of air quality found no toxins. Officials are looking at various possibilities as to why the birds dropped dead – including being startled by fireworks, stress or hit by hail or lightning. Mr Stephens said: “It could be weather-related or possibly stress-related. “There were some fireworks shot off at midnight and it is possible that the birds were on their roost and stressed so bad that it could have killed them.” High winds and tornadoes struck Arkansas on New Year’s Eve, with the hardest-hit area more than 150 miles to the west of Beebe. The birds have been collected from rooftops, trees and yards and are being tested at facilities in Little Rock and Madison, Wisconsin.

Thousands of dead birds have fallen from the sky and more than 100,000 dead fish have been washed up on the shore in one U.S. state. In scenes reminiscent of a horror film, up to 2,000 blackbirds dropped to the ground in the city of Beebe, Arkansas, just before midnight on New Year’s Eve. At the same time, thousands of fish were swept up on the shore of the Arkansas River in the north-west part of the state. Environmental experts dressed in protective suits and breathing masks spent New Year’s Day picking up birds’ bodies from the streets, but have been unable to find explanations for the deaths. Resident Melissa Weatherly said: ‘It was horrible. You could not even get down the road without running over hundreds. It was that bad.’

Neighbour Charles Boldrey added: ‘I asked the guys who are out here picking them up and they don’t seem to know anything. Nobody seems to know anything. It just kind of freaked everybody out.’ Most of the dead birds were red-winged blackbirds, but other types, including a duck, also died. No toxins were found in the air, and experts are investigating whether bad weather at high altitude or stress from a firework display could be to blame. Just one type of fish – the drum species – was killed, meaning pollution along the 20-mile stretch of river was unlikely to be the cause. Scientists are now testing the fish to see if they were suffering from disease. But investigators have admitted they are baffled by the bizarre events and could find nothing to suggest the two were connected. Ornithologist Karen Rowe said: ‘Test results usually were inconclusive, but the birds showed physical trauma and that the flock could have been hit by lightning or high-altitude hail.’

Times Square had the ball drop, and Brasstown, N.C., had its descending possum. But no place had a New Year’s Eve as unusual, or freakishly disturbing, as Beebe, Ark. Around 11 that night, thousands of red-winged blackbirds began falling out of the sky over this small city about 35 miles northeast of Little Rock. They landed on roofs, roads, front lawns and backyards, turning the ground nearly black and terrifying anyone who happened to be outside. “One of them almost hit my best friend in the head,” said Christy Stephens, who was standing outside among the smoking crowd at a party. “We went inside after that.” The cause is still being determined, but preliminary lab results from the Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission revealed “acute physical trauma” in samples of the dead birds.

There were no indications of disease, though tests were still being done for the presence of toxic chemicals. Karen Rowe, the bird conservation program coordinator for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, said the prevailing theory was that the birds had been startled by New Year’s Eve fireworks and suddenly dispersed, flying low enough to run into chimneys, houses and trees. Pyrotechnics are used to scatter blackbirds for bird control, though only during the day, given the birds’ poor vision. Beebe (pronounced BE-be) is a congregating spot for blackbirds, and one witness told Ms. Rowe that he saw the birds roosting earlier in the day and heard them again at night just after the fireworks started. “It was the right mix of things happening in a perfect time sequence,” Ms. Rowe said.

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