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January 5, 2011

Bird deaths: Did NWS radar capture startled flock?

Weather radar in Little Rock, Ark. may have captured an image of a flock of birds as they rose from nighttime roosts near Beebe, Ark. on New Year's Eve. Thousands of redwing blackbirds were later found dead on the ground nearby.

Such radar images of bird flocks are not unusual. Weather radar sites near the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and Delaware sometimes capture the radar reflections of flocks of birds as they rise into the sky at sunrise on summer mornings.

Little Rock radarLast night, Steve Zubrick, the science officer out at the National Weather Service forecast office in Sterling, Va., sent me a link to a radar image recorded beginning at 10:21 p.m. Central Time in Little Rock. That's about a half hour before reports began coming in about dead birds falling from the sky in Beebe.

The loop shows rainstorms moving away to the north and east of the radar. But at a spot about 25 nautical miles northeast of the radar, an unusual reflection appears, expands and moves off to the southeast with the prevailing winds. It's the green blob on the still radar image above.

"Could these returns be birds disturbed from the nightly roosting sites?" Steve asks.

"Given what was on radar...just a few light showers moving NE and examination of surface obs within 30nm of this area showed nothing unusual (no high wind gusts, eg). There were a few positive lightning strikes about 50-55 nautical miles to the SE over Arkansas County around 0430 UTC. Positive lightning strikes carry much more current then negative strikes...and have a much bigger "boom" then negative strikes. Still, they were located 55 miles away...although it would not be entirely impossible other lightning (non-cloud-to-ground) could have occurred.

"But I don't have any data that could show that (i.e., there is no lightning detection network that I know of in that area that would pick up the "total" lightning (e.g., within cloud or cloud-to-air)

"I'd say there is not a meteorological explanation. Exploding fireworks sounds like the most plausible...given the time of year...New Year's Eve...and that many folks like to shoot off fireworks to celebrate the New Year."

Posted by Frank Roylance at 12:17 PM | | Comments (19)
Categories: Cool pictures


If Mr. Zubrick would have looked at previous and subsequent images from NEXRAD (North Little Rock) he would have noticed that this unusual activity started around 10:30 PM and continued for many hours into the morning. Unlikey fireworks debris would have lingered over the site for so long... The USAF Avian Hazard Advisory System (AHAS) uses NEXRAD data as part of the advisories for aviation safey and that system clearly indicated biological targets over Beebe for many hours that night.

FR: I don't think Steve was suggesting the radar returns were reflections from smoke or fireworks debris. I think he meant that fireworks - public displays or private launches - may have been sending the panicked birds into the air. Ordinarily these huge flocks settle down for the night. They don't fly around in the dark. I wonder whether the "trauma" the birds were found to have suffered might have been caused by the concussion from the explosions, or maybe collisions as they flew into the darkness in a panic.

Thanks for the info. This story is just so puzzling and bizarre. Creepy, too.

I wish they would shut up about fireworks, the public is stupid, but not that stupid. I am weather spotter for the NWS Skywarn, and flocks of birds dont show up on radar. Precipitation shows up on radar. Something very screwy is going on around the world that were not being told about. Either they dont know either, or they are covering something up.

FR: Well, you're just mistaken about that. Flocks of birds do, in fact, show up on weather radar under the right conditions. It's been seen many times, around the Chesapeake Bay and elsewhere. It's reliable enough to be used accurately to determine flock densities. Here's just one scientific report on the phenomenon: BTW, weather radar has even caught clouds of mayflies rising into the sky to mate.

Thanks for sharing! Here's another capture of radar activity during the timeframe of bird anomalies in Beebe provided on an Arkansas weather blog (be sure to watch the radar footage videos a bit further down):

They even superimpose the radar over the geographically-affected area using Google Earth, , which shows the heaviest concentration of bird deaths reported in the city where people heard loud booms (not fireworks) prior to the erratic bird activity:,0,5624655.story

2 million dead fish in Chesapeake Bay now. What the heck is going on?

FR: In the case of the fish, it appears to be natural. Fish kills in the bay are not unusual. Most of the events are natural.

still, there is something going on, radar or not.

the official explanations lack consistency and credibility.

maybe a flock of red winged black birds decided to go to war with a flock of starlings?

at any rate, strange days; all these dead birds and dead fish; mere coincidence?

FR: That and the magic of the Internet. Twenty years ago the media would never have been able to put all this together. Or had the time or space to devote to it. Now we can search it out and post it into a medium with infinite space, all in seconds. Want to send the gullible into a panic? Post a report on all the earthquakes around the world today: There have been 18 as of 5:45 p.m. EST, ranging from Mag. 2.5 to 6.3 . I pulled that off the USGS website in about a minute. Is the planet coming apart? Probably not.

speaking of earthquakes,

FR: That's a very active and - over the long term -dangerous seismic zone. I did some reporting out there years ago. You don't want to be in New Madrid, or Memphis, the next time that fault goes off.

Maybe the trauma was from when they phudded to the ground ....

FR: Hard to imagine these little critters landing with that kind of force. But ...

I spent a couple of enlistments as a military weather forecaster, so I have some experience with the WSR-88D. Upon hearing the news of the dead Beebe, AR birds, I archived the radar data from that time and personally noticed those strange echoes that are possibly the disturbed flock. Two questions: I know red-winged blackbirds can travel up to a million strong, but don't those echoes cover a large geographical space (much too large to be a flock of birds)? Secondly, would a flock of birds be a likely find in precipitation mode? I've seen bird flocks on radar, but only in clear-air mode. Perhaps I am just too out of practice......... Regardless, I found those echoes (that were directly over Beebe exactly before and when the birds supposedly began falling) to be rather peculiar, as the precip had already advected far from the area and the cold front passing through. I honestly couldn't tell what it was.

Not just in the States.
DNA Specific posioning.


Justin won't like you any more for the (deserved) smackdown you gave him.

BTW - I've seen, on radar, the early morning flocks rise off the western shore of the Bay near the Susquehanna. Radar out of Dulles has shown birds rising near National several times. My sister tells me she's seen it on NE Indiana radar, and a cousin in central Florida has told me about seeing the same thing.

Justin says "the public is stupid, but not that stupid." I would agree, but with an addendum - 'but smarter than Justin.'


What was the speed of the wind between first and second locations in relation to the times of death? Maybe a cloud of bad funk was released from a factory upwind? I hope whatever the source of the deaths is has either disapated or blown out to sea. Disapated would be best.

Frank you are my voice of educated sanity. I've now seen a google map someone put up plotting all the reported mass animal death occurences in the last three weeks. Seems like a lot, right? but until i have past data to compare with, it's useless. Can you use your news archival powers (or help me discover my own) to find an easy way to compile a list for a similar time period.. say, last year this time, or similar temps.. you know what i'm saying? I need a control group. halp?

FR: I'd try a Google news search for that time period, or Nexis ... If I had the time, which I don't. Let us know what you find.

here's what i was looking for.


FR: Well done. Plenty of dead critters then, too. Here's a sampling, all from January 2010: 1,500 brown pelicans, Oregon and California; 1,200 manatees, crocodiles, alligators, fish and turtles, Florida; 50 bighorn sheep, Montana; 200 robins, mourning doves, starlings, Ohio; all traced to natural causes, including weather, starvation and pneumonia. Extrapolating from 2007 data, we probably lost about 220,000 people in the U.S. that month, too, most from "natural" causes.

Check my blog for a 3-D version of the radar images...

FR: Fascinating discussion. Thanks. Here's the link:

What if the deaths are part of a combination of a flock startled into flight by a previosly undocumented weather/atmospheric phenomena?
Microbursts were an undocumented event prior to the 1970's. Maybe this was a "frozen microburst" or something like that?

One coincidence still raises questions.

That is the bird kill in Arkansas compared with the one in Louisiana.

These were the same types of birds (mostly red winged blackbirds and some starlings, etc.), in relatively the same area (separated by only 300 miles) around the same time (separated by a few days) with the same types of injuries.

And yet the official explanations are that the 2 events have nothing to do with one another. One is supposedly fireworks, while the other is supposedly due to the birds running into an electrical line.

I'm not even sure how 500 birds can manage to all run into the same electrical line with such devastating effect. Electrical lines are rather narrow and they don't move. Even without the coincidence of the Arkansas kill this explanation seems rather incredible.

We have no decisive evidence yet; in which case why wouldn't speculation on 2 events with so many similarities naturally gravitate towards a common cause?

As per the argument that animal deaths are natural, sure, of course. Human deaths are natural too; however, there is a huge difference between, say, the aggregate of random individuals drowning in the ocean vs. the toll of a tsunami. Or the natural amelioration due to old age and other minor anomalies vs. the toll of war.

The latter things are not common, but they are natural (we're not talking about aliens here) and they exact a high price. Therefore it is in our interest to be aware of the inevitable statistical tails. Bees and bats are dying in significant numbers too; way beyond what we would expect from a normal distribution.

These things when viewed together in context suggest a time of natural, destructive culmination. Is it to suggest the end of the world? No, but times of great change often require vigorous adaptation and to remain ignorant of the dangers and instead offer seemingly disconnected, innocuous excuses for these events in order to preserve our sense of safety and comfort is ultimately counter productive.

It's like a leper who can't feel pain and thereby cuts himself seriously. Pain and fear have a natural purpose; not to resign ourselves but to inspire us to act positively and decisively.

The Maryland WeatherBlog received this Friday from Steve Prinzivalli, a meteorologist at WeatherBug and WTOP Radio in Washington:

"I wanted to share with you that I have done an analysis of this event highlighted in your blog, looking at a 100-mile radius around Little Rock, Ark. from 0400 to 0600 UTC on January 1, 2011 (that would be in the couple of hours before midnight on New Year’s Eve) when the birds began falling from the sky.

"The data from the WeatherBug Total Lightning Network showed the following:
WTLN Total Strokes: 99
WTLN CG Strokes: 23
WTLN IC Pulses: 76

"As you can see, there was plenty of IC Pulses in the area BUT the closest IC was over 43 miles from the town of Beebe, Ark.

"While IC lightning can travel 20 miles or more, it’s extremely rare to see it travel over 40 miles (and we would have likely seen more IC lightning along the path leading to Beebe.

"The conclusion is that it likely was not lightning that caused this bizarre event on New Year’s Eve."

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About Frank Roylance
This site is the Maryland Weather archive. The current Maryland Weather blog can be found here.
Frank Roylance is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun. He came to Baltimore from New Bedford, Mass. in 1980 to join the old Evening Sun. He moved to the morning Sun when the papers merged in 1992, and has spent most of his time since covering science, including astronomy and the weather. One of The Baltimore Sun's first online Web logs, the Weather Blog debuted in October 2004. In June 2006 Frank also began writing comments on local weather and stargazing for The Baltimore Sun's print Weather Page. Frank also answers readers’ weather queries for the newspaper and the blog. Frank Roylance retired in October 2011. Maryland Weather is now being updated by members of The Baltimore Sun staff

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