The recent, mysterious deaths of thousands of blackbirds in Arkansas and Louisiana around New Year's Eve has made news around the world and defied a conclusive answer. The best explanation so far is that fireworks may have scared or disoriented the birds, causing them to fatally injure themselves flying into buildings, water towers and trees.
As bizarre and unexplained as these events may seem, they are only the latest of many mysterious animals deaths over the years. Here are a few cases:
Charles Fort, an early collector of reports about strange and curious phenomena, noted the following in his tome "The Book of the Damned," first published in 1919: "A shower of frogs which darkened the air and covered the ground for a long distance is the reported result of a recent rainstorm at Kansas City, Mo." This report first appeared in the July 12, 1873 issue of "Scientific American." Fort noted dozens of other, similar reports from around the world, including England, France, Germany and Tahiti. Scientists think that strong winds could, under the right circumstances, lift and carry small, light animals (including small frogs and fish) short distances, for example from a pond to a nearby street.
According to a report in the Los Angeles Times (cited in "The World's Most Incredible Stories: The Best of Fortean Times," 1992, Barnes & Noble Books), on Dec. 19, 1984, drivers on L.A.'s Santa Monica Freeway found themselves driving over fish and crabs during a storm. Most of the animals seemed to be alive (at least temporarily), and some speculated that the animals might have somehow fallen out of the sky with the rain. The California Highway Patrol, however, suggested the animals had simply fallen off a delivery truck on the way to a restaurant, though there were no reports of accidents in the area.
In August 2005, two flocks of geese were discovered dead on a farm in Manitoba, Canada. More than 200 of the lifeless birds were littered across a field. Strangely, there were no external injuries: No gunshot wounds or any other apparent reason they would have fallen out of the moonless night sky. Officials suspected that someone (or something) had poisoned the geese, but the case took a bizarre twist when toxicology tests came back negative. In fact, the injuries were consistent with a mass suicide; the birds seemingly flew directly into the ground. Canadian wildlife officials were puzzled, but a study finally concluded that the geese had become disoriented in the darkness, lost sight of the horizon, and accidentally smashed into the ground. (Similar pilot error has killed many animals and people, including John F. Kennedy, Jr.)
In 2005, Germany experienced one of the strangest animal deaths on record. Over 1,000 toads simply exploded for no apparent reason, splattering their gory intestines everywhere. According to a report from "The Independent" (U.K.), "The tabloid press went into overdrive, dubbing the carnage site in Hamburg's Altona district the 'Pond of Death' and warning children and dogs to stay away. Theories ran wild that toads were committing suicide or were croaking because of a virus spread by South American race horses." A zoologist autopsied the toads and discovered that they had been attacked by birds, and their livers eaten. The toad's natural body defenses caused them to puff up — and with their livers missing, gruesomely explode.
Horses and Mules
Nearly two dozen horses and mules were found mysteriously killed in rural El Paso County, Colo., in October 2005. Twenty-three animals were discovered dead in two separate incidents over the course of about three weeks. Most of the beasts were thought to have been shot to death, because some were found with what appeared to be bullet wounds in their necks and hides. Yet further investigation revealed that the injuries (at about an inch deep) were too shallow to have killed the animals. No other obvious injuries or marks were found on the horses and mules, and some suspected they might instead have been poisoned for some reason. Finally investigators concluded that most of the animals, if not all of them, had been struck by lightning.
Benjamin Radford is managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and author of Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries. His Web site is www.RadfordBooks.com.