Beaufort News

National bird die-offs puzzle area experts

The mass deaths of thousands of redwing blackbirds and grackles reported in Arkansas, Louisiana and Kentucky over New Year's weekend has bird-watchers in Beaufort County, where those species are common, wondering if similar incidents have happened here.

"We've been pretty fortunate in South Carolina over the years. We've had some cases where we've had a couple small die-offs, but nothing serious," said Pete Richards of the Fripp Island Audubon Club.

In central Arkansas, where as many as 5,000 birds died on New Year's Eve, toxicology tests have come up clean, leading officials to list the cause of death as "acute physical trauma."

About 500 more birds were found in Louisiana and several hundred more in western Kentucky after the holiday. Fireworks are the likely culprit, officials have said.

During winter, blackbirds and similar species roost in large flocks, including hundreds of thousands in Lowcountry marshes. They relocate frequently during the season.

Denise Ecker of Audubon South Carolina said the deaths could have been a result of the birds simply wintering in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"I don't know if they've come up with anything concrete, but they're supposing the fireworks spooked them into flying around at night and into things," she said. "It's not good for them to be that stressed."

Richards said the phenomenon is concerning because of the size of the geographic area of the kills.

Bill Nicol, president of the Hilton Head Audobon Society, said the group has deliberated over the mystery of the die-offs.

"There are many places in the country that have fireworks at certain times -- it doesn't make any sense," he said. "We hate to see that kind of thing."

Richards said the blackbird die-off needs to be studied more extensively to determine any contributing factors and whether they could affect local bird populations.

"To have such large numbers very quickly end their lives is just scary," he said.