Scientists are investigating whether bad weather, fireworks or poison might have forced the birds out of the sky, or if a disoriented bird simply led the flock into the ground.
"We have a lot more questions," said Karen Rowe, an ornithologist with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. She said there are documented cases of birds becoming confused and plunging to earth.
Residents of the small town of
The director of
"Bad weather can occasionally catch flocks off guard, blow them off a roost, and they get hurled up suddenly into this thundercloud," lab director John Fitzpatrick said.
Rough weather had hit the state earlier Friday, but the worst of it was already well east of Beebe by the time the birds started falling, said Chris Buonanno, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in
If weather was the cause, the birds could have died in several ways, Fitzpatrick said. They could easily become disoriented - with no lights to tell them up and down - and smack into the ground. Or they could have died from exposure.
The birds' feathers keep them at a toasty 103 degrees, but "once that coat gets unnaturally wet, it's only a matter of minutes before they're done for," Fitzpatrick said.
Regardless of how they died, the birds will not be missed. Large blackbird roosts like one at Beebe can have thousands of birds that leave ankle- to knee-deep piles of droppings in places.
Nearly a decade ago, state wildlife officials fired blanks from shotguns and cannons to move a roost of thousands of blackbirds from Beebe. In recent years, many of the migratory birds returned.
Red-winged blackbirds are the among
Bird carcasses were shipped to the Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission and the
Rowe said many of the birds suffered injuries from striking the ground, but it was not clear whether they were alive when they hit. A few grackles and a couple of starlings were also among the dead. Those species roost with blackbirds, particularly in winter.
Tens of thousands of blackbirds can roost in a single tree. And they do not see well at night, when they usually sleep, Fitzpatrick said.
Earlier Friday, a tornado killed three people in
In 2001, lightning killed about 20 mallards at
Back in 1973, hail knocked birds from the sky at
Rowe and Fitzpatrick said poisoning was possible but unlikely. Rowe said birds of prey and other animals, including dogs and cats, ate several of the dead birds and suffered no ill effects.
"Every dog and cat in the neighborhood that night was able to get a fresh snack that night," Rowe said.
AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein contributed to this report from