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Amid revelry, 3,000 birds fall dead

New Year's revelers in this small town were enjoying midnight fireworks when they noticed something other than sparks falling from the sky: thousands of dead blackbirds.

The red-winged blackbirds rained out of the darkness onto rooftops and sidewalks and into fields. One struck a woman walking her dog. Another hit a police cruiser.

Birds were "littering the streets, the yards, the driveways, everywhere," said Robby King, a county wildlife officer in Beebe, a community of 5,000 northeast of Little Rock. "It was hard to drive down the street in some places without running over them."

In all, more than 3,000 birds tumbled to the ground. Scientists said Monday that fireworks appeared to have frightened the birds into such a frenzy that they crashed into homes, cars and one another. Some may have flown straight into the ground.

"The blackbirds were flying at rooftop level instead of treetop level" to avoid explosions above, said Karen Rowe, an ornithologist with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. "Blackbirds have poor eyesight, and they started colliding with things."

But Rowe stopped short of declaring the mystery solved, saying labs planned to test bird carcasses for toxins or disease. Another theory was that violent thunderstorms might have disoriented the flock or even just one bird that could have led the group in a fatal plunge to the ground.

"I turn and look across my yard, and there's all these lumps," said Shane Roberts, who thought hail was falling until he saw a dazed blackbird beneath his truck. His daughter, Alex, 16, spent Saturday morning picking them up.

For some people, the scene unfolding shortly before midnight evoked images of the apocalypse and cut short New Year's celebrations. Many families phoned police instead of popping champagne.

"I think the switchboard lit up pretty good," said Beebe police Capt. Eddie Cullum. "For all the doomsdayers, that was definitely the end of the world."

Paul Duke filled three 5-gallon buckets with dead birds on New Year's Day. "They were on the roof of the house, in the yard, on the sidewalks, in the street," said Duke, a suspension supervisor at a nearby school. A few dead birds still littered town streets Monday.

The birds will not be missed. Large roosts such as the one at Beebe can have thousands of birds that leave ankle- to knee-deep piles of droppings in places.

A few grackles and a couple of starlings were also among the dead. "They died from massive trauma," said Game and Fish Commission spokesman Keith Stephens.

Residents heard loud fireworks just before the birds started hitting the ground.

"They started going crazy, flying into one another," Stephens said. The birds apparently also hit homes, trees and other objects.

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