Showers of Organic Matter

With the sudden interest in birds falling from the sky, following the apocalyptic death of thousands of red-winged blackbirds in Beebe, Arkansas, on New Years Eve 2010, there is a need for scientific literature that documented and explained previous cases of this phenomenon.

Probably the oldest and only scholarly report is ‘Showers of Organic Matter’ by Waldo L. McAtee (Assistant Biologist, U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey, Washington D.C.) published in Monthly Weather Review 45 (May 1917): 217-224.

In the first sentence McAtee sets the tone:

“The idea of organic matter and particularly of living things raining down from the sky, on first thought, is hard to entertain.”

Then follow descriptions of numerous cases of hay, jelly, honey, sugar, wheat, insects, worms, frogs, toads, fish, salamanders and a gopher turtle pouring down from the sky. Strangely there is only one case of a shower of birds:

“… but what shall we say of a shower of birds, in which hundreds dropped dead in the streets of a Louisiana city? In the Baton Rouge, La., correspondence of the Philadelphia Times, some time in 1896, it is stated that — On Friday morning [on the week before] last, early risers in the little capital [Baton Rouge, La.] witnessed a peculiar sight in the shape of a shower of birds that fell from a clear sky, literally cluttering the streets of the city. There were wild ducks, catbirds, woodpeckers, and many birds of strange plumage, some of them resembling canaries, but all dead, falling in heaps along the thoroughfares, the singular phenomenon attracting many spectators and causing much comment. […] Some idea of the extent of the shower may be gathered from the estimate that out on National Avenue alone the children of the neighborhood collected 200 birds.”

The same report, but quoted from a St.Louis newspaper, was first mentioned (and fully cited) in the ornithological literature in The Osprey (An Illustrated Monthly Magazine Devoted Exclusively to the Interests of Ornithology), volume 1, number 4, page 56 (December 1896). The cause of this shower of birds, as written in the newspaper, is improbable. [with thanks to NWT Online and Maarten Keulemans]

Dead birds don’t fly

Here is my take on the dead birds that rained from the sky in Arkansas on 31 December 2010, and on such thing happening elsewhere.

Dead birds do not simply fall from the sky — not in great numbers at the same time. Rather, they collide with something first, and then die. That is what happened to the red-winged blackbirds in Beebe, Arkansas on New Years Eve. Similar cases have happened at other times, in locations around the globe.

All cases involved species that roost communally in very large numbers: red-winged-blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus), European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris), jackdaws (Corvus monedula), and few other species. Their numbers at roosting sites can reach hundreds of thousands, and even millions. When they are being disturbed (by fireworks for example) the birds go on the wing and – in panic – part of the flock may easily get disorientated and crash full speed into buildings, into parked cars, and even straight into the ground.

The sight of all these dead birds concentrated on a limited surface may smack of the Apocalypse, but a few thousand casualties – when hundreds of thousands were in the air – is a case of minor mortality. Because the Beebe Massacre got worldwide coverage in the media, each and every find of more that ten dead birds that would normally draw little interest, now gets full attention. Theories about the causes of death are numerous; some even blame Sarah Palin, HAARP, Chemtrails, Microwaving, Phosgene, toxic clouds, the BP oil-spill and, of course God (Hosea 4:1-3: “The land dries up, and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea are swept away.”)

In my archives of remarkable bird deaths I came across other cases similar to the one that the caused the hype: (the numbers of dead birds are lower, but that is just a matter of flock size).

November 1896, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA – ‘A shower of birds fell from a clear sky’. Hundreds of wild ducks, catbirds, woodpeckers and ‘many birds of strange plumage, some of them resembling canaries, but all dead’ cluttered the streets of the city. A newspaper report (from the Philadelphia Times and a paper from St.Louis) documenting this case is quoted in The Osprey 1(4): 56 (December 1896) and by Waldo L. McAtee in his seminal paper ‘Showers of Organic Matters‘ in Monthly Weather Review 45: 217-224 (May 1917).

26 October 2003, Steinhaldenstrasse, Stuttgart, Germany – On this Sunday afternoon about 100 starlings from a much larger flock crashed into the pavement, and littered the street for a short time. Pedestrians halted the traffic. A dozen birds died, the others survived. Here is an eyewitness report from the Stuttgarter Zeitung (27 October 2003), which called the incident a ‘Kamikaze Flight’:

Gegen 13.30 Uhr pfiff urplötzlich eine Formation von Starenvögeln knapp über die Häuserdächer und zwischen den Gebäuden hindurch auf sie zu. Die Schwarmwolke flog über ihren Köpfen zunächst mehrere rasante Wirbel, schwang sich schließlich geschlossen in die Lüfte, um dann aus etwa 20 Metern Höhe wie auf Kommando abzukippen – und senkrecht nach unten zu rasen. Während der obere Teil des riesigen Schwarms noch rechtzeitig „durchstarten“ konnte, knallten die unteren Vögel wie in selbstmörderischer Absicht auf den Asphalt, die Beobachter hörten „einen Riesenschlag“. [google.translate]

1 January 2009, Gorinchem, The Netherlands – About 600 starlings were found dead in a small area in this quiet little town. Some hung in trees and could not be removed (here is a video). Autopsies revealed the birds were ‘healthy’ and showed no signs of poisoning. Here is the official statement of the Gorinchem Municipality.

7 March 2010, Coxley, Somerset (UK) – 75 starlings ‘appeared to fall from the sky and crash land on to a driveway’. Five of the birds survived the fall but had to be put down because of their severe injuries. Here is the BBC-report, and here the final words, after autopsies.