Saturday, December 22, 2007

Grackles Dying

As a commenter noted yesterday, a neighborhood in Staten Island experienced a scary situation when birds started dropping from the sky and dying.

More than 50 birds plummeted to the pavement in Bay Terrace about 3 p.m., causing frightened residents to scramble indoors.

"It was like Alfred Hitchcock's 'The Birds,'" said Donna Toti, 50. "Birds were just falling out of the sky. They would land, lie on the ground, flap and die."

The birds - all believed to be Purple Martins - landed within the Port Regalle development near the intersection of Wiman Ave. and Tennyson Drive. Some appeared to die in the air; others expired in the moments after they hit the pavement, authorities said.

"When we pulled in, most of the birds were on the ground, floundering and foaming at the mouth," said FDNY Battalion Chief John Giacella.

Giacella suggested that because all the birds were the same species they likely got ill from something they ate. But he noted that he was far from certain.

Health department officials collected the birds last night and were sending them to a lab for testing.
I have seen other stories with birds mysteriously dropping from the sky. In those cases the cause turned out to be poison, like a recent case somewhere in Texas. Last year in Australia, dead birds started appearing around a town because of lead poisoning.

The dead birds that the story refers to as "purple martins" are clearly common grackles. (Note the curved bill, yellow eye, and wedge-shaped tail). Grackles, like other blackbirds, tend to gather in large flocks for roosting and foraging during the winter. Because the flocks are so large, often numbering into the thousands, they are sometimes seen as pests and are targeted by pest control. Also, blackbirds feed on the ground like starlings and pigeons, two other species sometimes baited with poisoned food. Whether deliberate poison was the cause of this mass death remains to be seen.