BEEBE, Ark. — Preliminary autopsies on 17 of the up to 5,000 blackbirds that fell on this town indicate they died of blunt trauma to their organs, the state's top veterinarian told NBC News on Monday.
Their stomachs were empty, which rules out poison, Dr. George Badley said, and they died in midair, not on impact with the ground.
That evidence, and the fact that the red-winged blackbirds fly in close flocks, suggests they suffered some massive midair collision, he added. That lends weight to theories that they were startled by something.
Earlier Monday, the estimated number of dead birds was raised to between 4,000 and 5,000, up sharply from the initial estimate of 1,000.
Keith Stephens, a spokesman for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, provided the new numbers.
I once put that many blackbirds on the ground, but it took about 3 or 4 months. Read no further if you are easily disturbed.
I grew up on a rice farm in Mississippi. Our house was in the middle of a pecan orchard. There were 50 or 60 pecan trees in the fields around the house.
(As residents of Fort Worth know, blackbirds and grackles travel in massive flocks. They'll color the sky black. When they select a place to roost in their daily migration, they leave behind a massive pile of blackbird droppings. Downtown Fort Worth's efforts to get rid of them were comical. They used scary rubber owls, air canons, plastic snakes in the trees, and I forget what else. One thing they didn't do? They didn't hire me to shoot them. But I digress....)
One year when I was about 12 years old, the largest flock of blackbirds I've ever seen decided to roost in our pecan orchard. They would fly in at about 2:00 in the afternoon and leave around 7:00. Sometimes you couldn't see the branches on the pecan trees.
My father estimated that they ate about 20 acres of rice. (At the time, a good rice yield was 90 bushels per acre, and we got around $8.00 per bushel. Do the math.)
I had a 20-gauge single-shot, a beloved shotgun that I purchased with my own money in the 4th grade.
My father gave me an allotment of one box of shotguns shells per day....
....and turned me loose in the pecan orchard. That was the best job I've ever had.
As long as he didn't need me on a tractor, every day was a blackbird hunt.
I could aim in the general direction of a tree, and put blackbirds on the ground. My record number was 23 with one shot.
Jack and Jim, our two sorta Border Collies, started following me into the orchard to gorge themselves on blackbirds. They were competitive types who survived on leftovers and scraps, and they didn't bother with chewing. They just ate and ate and ate. Watching them swallow blackbirds was like watching Chris Christie swallow an aspirin.
Eventually the cats (whose name was Legion, for they were many) started following me into the orchard. I'd give almost anything for a picture of me, the dogs, and the cats making our trek into the killing fields. We were a team.
The birds eventually figured out the range of my Western Auto .20 gauge, and it became a bit more difficult to kill quite so many birds per shot. Still, it was a rare shotgun shell that didn't send 8 or 10 of them to blackbird hell.
25 shotgun shells per day times 12 dead blackbirds per shell times 3 or 4 months.
You do the math.
The grossest part, even by my jaded North Mississippi standards, was when Jack and Jim made it back to the house.
They would recline in the driveway, and you could see wounded and unchewed blackbirds moving around inside their ribcages.
I don't know or care what killed 4,000 blackbirds in Bebe Arkansas, but I'm sure the blackbird population will survive.
They've made it through worse things.