Rob writes a weekly outdoors column and covers energy, environmental and nuclear issues (and lots of other topics) for the metro section. He has been an avid angler and hunter ever since he realized he had neither the aptitude nor the desire to take up golf. He has been a full-time journalist for 28 years, including 11 years as bureau chief in Columbia County. Before joining The Chronicle, he worked at newspapers in Columbia, S.C., and West Palm Beach, Fla. He has edited or authored three reference books on antique fishing tackle; and his freelance work has appeared in Field & Stream, Gray’s Sporting Journal and Georgia Outdoor News. He lives in Evans.
Posted January 6, 2011 02:46 pm - Updated January 6, 2011 02:54 pm

It's raining blackbirds in Arkansas and our skies are cloudy, too.

Dead birds are big news this week, from redwings raining down in Arkansas to whooping cranes in south Georgia to bald eagles at Thurmond Lake.


But is it a sign of the Apocalypse? Probably not.


If conspiracy theorists weren't fully abuzz after 5,000 blackbirds tumbled from the New Year's Eve skies over Beebe, Ark., they were in full frenzy when 500 more dropped dead a few days later near Baton Rouge, La.


The sad truth is that birds die all the time and there are many possible causes (other than sonic booms, nuclear fallout, fireworks or deadly plagues).


Redwing blackbirds, in particular, are among nature's most prolific avian. Tens of millions of them winter and migrate across the Southeast each year.


Anyone who has ever spent an early winter weekend in a Georgia deer stand has marveled at the undulating flocks that sometimes take a half-hour or more to pass overhead.


Whatever killed the Arkansas birds may have affected only a small portion of a much larger flock. Ornithologists are stumped as to the cause, but will very likely find an answer soon.


On a broader scale, the well-publicized phenomenon is a reminder that birds face many tangible threats - and most of them are somehow linked to man's behavior or lifestyle.


A University of Nebraska report last year calculated that feral cats kill 480 million wild birds each year and are a contributing factor in the decline of many species.


Large migrating flocks of birds also face another growing menace: the proliferation of communications towers that accompany cellular phone technology. Under certain weather conditions, birds can be lured to their lights and die by the thousands.


Ornithologists refer to the phenomenon as "towerkill." Way back in 2005, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimated the minimum number tower-killed birds at 5 million per year, with possibly as many as 50 million. Since then, thousands of new cell towers have sprouted up each year.


Also in the news this week was an Associated Press report that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is trying to determine why three whooping cranes suddenly died near Albany just before New Year's Eve.


The rare birds were banded and equipped with transmitters as part of their role in the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership effort to reintroduce them to the eastern U.S.


Closer to home, at least five bald eagles have been found dead along Thurmond Lake. Their cause of death is no mystery, however, and has been linked to an algae bloom spread from the invasive weed hydrilla to small waterbirds that are favorite foods of bald eagles.