Reflections in Nature: Mysterious starling deaths

Our daughter and two of our grandchildren came home recently to go with us on a bus trip to New York City to see the Christmas Show at Rockefeller Center.

While driving up Route 15, Holly noticed many small dead animals on the road near Clyde Peeling’s Reptiland in Allenwood. Although she and the grandkids were unable to identify the carcasses, Holly said they could have been rats. She questioned why there would be that many dead rats on the road and what could have killed them.

Well, my family knows that if I don’t have an answer, I make one up. I told her it was quite possible that a shipment of rats was being delivered to the reptile place to feed the snakes, and the box fell off the truck.

I forgot all about the incident until Mary Alice and I were traveling south on Route 15 the following Friday and came upon the dead animals still laying on the road. While passing, I wasn’t able to identify them, so I turned around and parked alongside the road.

To my amazement, I found that they were starlings. I tried to count them, but after 100, I stopped.

The next question was what had killed the birds. Some of them were on the middle turning lane while others were on the berm of the northbound lane. After taking photos, continued on to our destination, the Christkindl Market in Mifflinburg.

Afterward, we went to Scott and Missy Crandell’s home for lunch. Scott suggested that the birds were poisoned, but wondered why they all died at once.

I told him it didn’t appear as if the birds had been killed by vehicles because of the way they were strung out on the turning lane and the berm.

I am sure most drivers are startled when a songbird flies in front of their vehicle and then smacks the windshield.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that about 60 million birds are killed along highways each year. We usually don’t see these birds because, being so small, they are flung off the roads where they can’t be seen.

Here are more staggering numbers of bird deaths from the report:

About 97 million birds are killed when they fly into windows;

Four to five million die after flying into communication towers;

Tens of thousands are killed when they fly into high-tension transmission lines;

Commercial airlines kill 33,000 birds annually;

Wind turbines kill 33,000 annually;

Seventy-two million birds are killed by poison; and

Cats, both feral and tame, kill hundreds of millions of birds each year.

Prior to the turn of the century, people engaged in a holiday tradition known as the Christmas “Side Hunt,” in which they chose sides and went afield with their guns. Whoever brought in the biggest pile of feathered and furred quarry won.

Conservation was in its beginning stages around the turn of the 20th century, and many observers and scientists were becoming concerned about declining bird populations.

Beginning on Christmas Day 1900, ornithologist Frank Chapman, an early officer in the then budding Audubon Society, proposed a new holiday – the Christmas Bird Census – that would count birds during the holidays rather than hunt them.

Thanks to the inspiration of Frank M. Chapman and the enthusiasm of 27 dedicated birders, 25 Christmas Bird Counts were held that day. The locations ranged from Toronto, Ontario, to Pacific Grove, Calif., with most counts in or near the population centers of northeastern North America.

Those original 27 Christmas Bird Counters tallied 90 species on all of the counts combined.

This year, the Christmas Bird Count will be held Dec. 14 to Jan. 5, with volunteers able to choose the day most convenient for them.

A week later, I passed the dead birds and this time I looked carefully to see if there were any birds laying in the field next to the road. There were none.

If anyone has an explanation for the deaths of these birds, I would like to hear from you.

Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.