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Arkansas Mysteries: Why Did Thousands Of Fish, Birds Die?

Jan 3, 2011 (Morning Edition)

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The news that thousands of red-winged blackbirds fell dead from the sky in Beebe, Ark., on New Year's Eve follows the report that "hundreds of thousands" of fish were found dead in the Arkansas River, near Ozark, Ark., over the weekend.

There's no evidence connecting the two incidents. Beebe is about 40 miles northeast of Little Rock. Ozark is about 125 miles away from Beebe, to the west near the Oklahoma border.

The carcasses are being tested. The thinking as of now is that the birds might have been hit by lightning or hail, or might have been startled and confused by fireworks. KARK-TV has video of the carnage and clean-up.

In the other case, only one species — drum fish — were found dead. So disease is thought to be the most likely culprit.

Update at 7:05 p.m. ET: Some of the initial autopsy results are in.

Update at 12:15 p.m. ET: Morning Edition co-host Steve Inskeep spoke with David Goad, chief of the widlife management division of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and Mark Oliver, chief of the commission's Fisheries Division.

Oliver said that in other cases where the "die-off" involved mainly one species of fish, "normally it's some kind of bacterial or viral infection":

As for the birds, Goad said that "had it been a disease, there would have been a pile of birds" under their roost site. "That wasn't the case, they were fairly scattered across that landscape."

So, he said, "something traumatic" probably scared the birds — a storm or fireworks. They would have taken off, and many likely flew into each other and into objects such as tree limbs.

Also, he said, "their bodies can't handle a lot of stress. ... They just get overcome with stress and they just can't handle it":

More from Steve's conversation with the Arkansas officials is on today's Morning Edition. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show.

Update at 11:15 a.m. ET, Jan. 4: The evidence continues to point to fireworks as the likely cause of the birds' deaths.

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