Cats ’n’ dogs? No, it’s rainingbirds and fish

THOUSANDS of red-winged blackbirds fell from the sky in Beebe, Arkansas, during New Year’s Eve celebrations.

Feathered bodies littered the streets and gardens of the town. At around the same time, fish died at Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. As news of the disasters spread, reports began to surface of bird and fish kills elsewhere. Five hundred jackdaws had perished in a village in Sweden, there were victims in Louisiana, while the carcasses of scores of seabirds drifted ashore on the New Zealand coast.

These events, some fundamentalist preachers claimed, were the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophesy of Hosea; “Therefore shall the land mourn and everyone shall perish with the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air; the fishes also shall be taken away”. The Day of Judgement must surely be at hand! But the world didn’t end, so perhaps we should seek an alternative explanation for the strange calamities. Eric Dempsey told RTÉ’s Mooney Show that waxwings had died in Dublin some years ago after ingesting fermented berries, a case of alcoholic poisoning. Had the Arkansas birds eaten something which made them fly around in delirium and fall down dead? Were the American military testing a new Star Wars weapon, a radiation field lethal to birds?

Some of the reports were little more than media hype. It was claimed that 1,500 turtle doves had died in Italy. However, this species is a summer visitor from sub-Saharan Africa; there are no turtle doves in Europe at this time of year. Distorted reporting of apocalyptic animal disasters isn’t new; Glynn Anderson, in Birds of Ireland, Facts Folklore & History, describes events which occurred as long ago as 1621. Two armies of starlings, it was claimed, gathered on opposite sides of Cork city. Then, making a huge din, they charged at each other. After a fierce battle, dead and dying starlings littered the streets. A similar conflict was reported from Fermoy on November 2, 1930. This time, two species were involved. Around 10,000 starlings attacked a much smaller flock of rooks. The battle lasted several hours and was resumed each night for about a week. When rook reinforcements arrived, the starlings were defeated and fled.

So what really happened in Cork and Fermoy? There is often a discrepancy between the facts and the interpretations onlookers and reporters put on them. Starlings and rooks gather into flocks at roosting time, flying to and fro before settling down for the night. Formations dividing and merging in the sky could give the impression that a battle is taking place. A sick bird or two falling to the ground or birds colliding with buildings might lead to the finding of carcasses.

The red-winged blackbirds of North America roost in huge flocks just as our European starlings do. There can be tens of thousands of them huddled together on the branches of trees. Did the noise and mayhem generated by the New Year’s Eve revellers in Beebe disturb a roost? If so, disorientated and dazzled by the fireworks, panic-striken birds, flying blindly, would collide with buildings or cables. Some might even crash into each other.

It might be objected that birds sleep very soundly and that even violent thunderstorms fail to wake them.

Taken by a guide out into the Bornean rainforest at night, I was shown birds roosting on branches; trogons, kingfishers and bulbuls were out for the count. Most slept alone. Some were in pairs. You could reach out and touch the sleepers, but I didn’t do so for fear of waking them. The light from my torch and flashes of a camera had no effect. During the tropical rainy season, lightening flickers fairly constantly. Storms often occur and the thunder can be deafening. Although tropical birds are used to this, birds closer to home may be more sensitive. But even if storms don’t upset roosting blackbirds, fireworks might. A few nervous individuals could spread panic through a flock, the avian equivalent of a run on the banks or a stock-market crash. Was this what happened in Arkansas and Sweden?

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