Monday, January 3, 2011

A Sad Tale...

No doubt you have seen or heard the story about three thousand red-winged blackbirds, starlings and grackles falling from the sky in Beebe, Arkansas, 40 miles from Little Rock.  The birds have now all been gathered up and ornithologists will try to determine the cause of death of these lovely birds. [Here]  (The initial stories incorrectly  reported that only red-winged blackbirds were involved.)
There are no definitive answers at this time from the U.S. Environmental Services who gathered up the birds.  What we do know is that the event took place in a one-square mile area near Beebe, Arkansas last Friday night when some people were out looking at fireworks and others were returning from parties.  There is an area near Beebe with deep woods that a huge number of blackbirds use for a roost.
An earlier photo of the flock that was posted on Huffpost, along with the first story about the bird deaths, showed a huge dense cloud of thousands of birds.  The noise from that many birds must be deafening.  I have only experienced flocks of perhaps a hundred migrating grackles at one time and their chatter and flapping wings fills the air with amazing sound.  I can only imagine what a flock of thousands of large blackbirds must sounds like.
This story immediately reminded me of the tales I have read of the gigantic flocks of the now extinct passenger pigeons.  This is a description from John James Audabon in 1813. [Here]
As I traveled on, the air was literally filled with pigeons. The light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse, and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses.
Before sunset I reached Louisville, Kentucky. The pigeons passed in undiminished number, and continued to do so for three days in succession. The people were all in arms. The banks of the Ohio were crowded with men and boys, incessantly shooting at the pilgrims, which flew lower as they passed over the river. Multitudes were thus destroyed. For a week or more, the population fed on no flesh other that of pigeons, and talked of nothing but pigeons.
Alexander Wilson (1766-1813), called the father of American scientific ornithology, estimated that “one flock consisted of two billion birds.”  [Here]  It is almost impossible to imagine the size and density of the flocks.  Most experts agree that when the earliest settlers arrived, passenger pigeons outnumbered all other North American birds combined.  [Here]   
These birds nested and fed on the “...nearly continuous chestnut, birch, oak, maple, and pine forests the size of Western Europe.”  [Here]  Of course, as the settlers moved in, the forests were cleared for farmland, providing the birds with a new and interesting food supply.  Unfortunately, the birds provided the settlers with a meat supply, too.
The extinction of this species proceeded rather quickly at the end of the Nineteenth Century because of the birds’ flocking and nesting habits and the predatory habits of the new humans invading the birds’ habitat.  The migrating flocks would arrive as their killers would be waiting with guns and clubs.  [Here]
In 1896, the last remaining flock of Passenger Pigeons settled down to nest.  All 250,000 were exterminated in one day by sportsmen who gathered to kill what was advertised as the last wild flock of the birds. 
The last passenger pigeon was killed in Ohio in 1900 by a 14-year old boy, Press Clay Southworth, who saw a strange bird eating corn in the yard.  He shot and killed the bird, which his parents later identified as looking like a bird species that they had seen in their youth.  They had the presence of mind to take it to a local taxidermist.  And the bird was on display in Ohio for many years.
Efforts to breed the passenger pigeon in captivity were unsuccessful because of its breeding and flocking habits.  The last captive bird, named Martha after Martha Washington, died on September 1, 1914 and is at the Smithsonian.
What a sad story, but an important one to remember.  I sometimes think of the passenger pigeon when I watch their cousins, the mourning doves, eat at the feeder or take a sip of water in the bird bath.  What a conscienceless species we are to kill off an entire species but yet we can wrap ourselves in high moral rectitude.  We even have a prominent GOP politician who shot and killed a caribou on reality t.v.    
Fair warning, America...

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