Unknown Country has previously reported unexplained mass extinction-style events occurring in fish and other marine life (see Rivers of Death and Silent Seas), but the phenomenon also appears to be spreading to our bird life.
Unconfirmed reports suggest that, for the third consecutive year, more blackbirds fell from the sky on New Year’s Eve in Beebe, Arkansas.
“We heard the first bird fall at 11:57 p.m., then probably 10 more over the next minute,” reported local resident Mabel Jean Jackson. “We pulled the lawn chairs out on the front porch and didn’t hear anything for a couple of minutes. Then at midnight on the dot the sky fell out. They just kept falling. We couldn’t see the ground after a few seconds.”
In previous years, the strange deaths were thought to be caused by firework displays scaring the birds, though this has not been confirmed.
The New Year’s Eve event was preceded by other strange bird deaths in other areas of the U.S. In Utah, a spate of unexplained deaths in the state’s eagle population is causing great concern amongst state wildlife experts, who are desperately trying to determine why these majestic birds have been dying in such large numbers.
“I don’t ever recall having this many eagles die in such a short period of time,” said Utah Division of Wildlife Resources spokesman Mark Hadley. “It is very unusual. It could be encephalitis, which is caused by West Nile Virus, though officials said it seems too late in the year for that."
A total of 20 bald eagles have now been reported dead in the northern and central regions of Utah.The birds, which were all of different ages, had all been seen to display the same symptoms prior to their deaths, becoming crippled and incapacitated by leg paralysis, wing paralysis, head tremors and seizures. Officials have so far been unable to identify the cause of the symptoms, but post-mortem examinations, or necropsies, conducted on some of the dead birds have suggested that they are likely to have occurred due to disease rather than toxic exposure or other factors, according to Leslie McFarlane, wildlife disease coordinator at the Division of Wildlife Resources.
"It appears to be more disease-related since we’re seeing birds with neurological symptoms and enlarged hearts. That doesn’t rule out all toxins, but it shortens the list of suspects," she said, adding that preliminary tests conducted by a national wildlife lab in Wisconsin have also ruled out poisoning caused by the eagles feeding on waterfowl carcasses contaminated by lead ammunition used by hunters.
The unknown disease appears to be affecting other bird species in the area, as a mass die-off that killed thousands of birds occurred in the eared grebe population during November. Specialists believe that the grebe deaths were due to highly infectious bacterial diseases – avian cholera or erysipelas – and have postulated that the eagle deaths could have resulted from the birds of prey feeding on the diseased grebes, as the small birds are known to form a substantial part of the eagles’ diet.
A USGS report indicates that avian cholera and erysipelas can be transmitted from bird to bird or by consumption of contaminated water or food, and the report also states that this is not the first time a mass die-offs has occurred in similar species, detailing a similar event that occurred in 1975 in the Great Salt Lake.
The once federally-protected raptors, which were adopted as the U.S. national symbol, are currently located in their wintering grounds in the Rockies. The species was removed from the federal threatened and endangered species list in 2007 after their numbers increased and soared back from near extinction, but a significant threat from a life-threatening disease could soon see them back on the list and needing government protection. Until experts can work out exactly how to treat the disease, there is little they can do to protect the birds.
"It’s frustrating and heart breaking," said McFarlane. "It’s really hard because you want to be able to do something right now and we just can’t."
A lab in Madison, Wisconsin, is currently conducting blood work and toxicology on the carcasses, but the results may not be available for few weeks.