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UGA determining cause of mysterious bird deaths in South

Fireworks, power lines believed to have killed blackbirds in Ark., La.

POSTED: January 5, 2011 11:00 p.m.

Birds that mysteriously fell recently from the sky in Arkansas and Louisiana have made their way to Athens where University of Georgia staff are trying to figure out what caused their deaths.

Kevin Keel, wildlife pathologist at the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study, said doctors have done initial tests on the birds from Louisiana, but the Arkansas birds just arrived Wednesday.

It's believed that celebratory fireworks may have caused thousands of blackbirds to crash into homes, cars and each other on New Year's Eve in Arkansas.

On Monday in Louisiana, power lines most likely killed 450 birds, littering a highway near Baton Rouge.

Wildlife officials say the timing seems to be a coincidence.

Mass bird death's aren't uncommon. From June through Dec. 12 there were five reported incidents of at least 1,000 birds dying, according to the U.S. Geological Service's website.

Kentucky wildlife officials say several hundred dead birds were found dead in the western part of the state. The grackles, red wing blackbirds, robins and starlings were found last week.

The timing and location of these seemingly apocalyptic occurrences have drawn national attention. Keel said his department has been flooded with calls and requests for interviews from around the country.

Deaths of this size have only happened a handful of times in Georgia. In 2003, 3,500 birds died in White County because of toxins and there have been several incidents over the last decade where 50 or less birds died in the area.

Keel said the first birds to arrive at the university have undergone postmortem examinations and appear to have lesions and signs of trauma, possibly from hitting telephone wires or the ground.

But he said suggesting a cause would be just speculation at this time and further tests are necessary.

"The lesions that we see are basically just ruptures of livers and hemorrhage in the body. That's all consistent with the birds flying into something or being pushed by the wind into something at significant speed," he said.

"There could be some other disease going on at the same time or it could be something that predisposed them to fly erratically into these things."

Peter Gordon, education director at Elachee Nature Science Center, said birds are especially sensitive to environmental factors and can be a good indicator of environmental risks.

"They almost are the crucible that we can see the environment through," he said.

Keel said completing a bird autopsy is similar to completing a human autopsy and can be just as thrilling as it seems on television crime shows.

"It's a puzzle and just trying to figure out what the cause of death is in these birds is always interesting," he said, "even if it's something as mundane as flying into buildings and mailboxes."

Associated Press contributed to this story

 



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