It was like a scene straight out of Alfred Hitchcock. Late on New Year's Eve 2010, thousands of birds rained from the sky in Beebe, Arkansas.
Some 5,000 red-winged blackbirds, European starlings, common grackles and brown-headed cowbirds suffered blunt-force trauma after colliding with cars, trees and buildings, an ornithologist from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission would tell National Geographic.
Why does it matter now? The answer is fireworks. Specifically, the noises that accompany fireworks and pose a threat to birds, according to Ray Brown, host of the Talkin' Birds podcast.
When birds hear the loud boom, they panic and take off, says Brown. "And its nighttime, so they can't really see where they're going. So crashes result."
And just as experts suspect happened in Arkansas, "When you've got a big roost of birds that take off together, the mayhem multiplies," Brown says.
With Fourth of July celebrations approaching, Brown offers this reminder: Birds are just as frightened of fireworks as cats and dogs are. When fireworks explode in the vicinity of a roost, or even around individual birds, the results can be fatal.
"Birds are spooked by any kind of loud noise," he says. "But fireworks, of course, are in the air and are especially loud, so I think that's something birds are not really used to coping with. And these things go on for several minutes."
There have been no mass-scale bird deaths reported as a result of fireworks since the Arkansas event, but in recent years, localities across the world have still documented harm to birds from loud pyrotechnics and taken steps to reduce the impact.
In 2008, for example, federal officials showed that seabirds in the northern California town of Gualala abandoned their nests after a fireworks show, leaving their eggs vulnerable to predators, SF Gate reports. The California Coastal Commission halted the town's planned fireworks display in response.
And just last year, the Galapagos banned the sale and use of pyrotechnics. In the English port town of Bideford, the district voted to ban fireworks in the vicinity of a bridge where starlings roost, and the city council proposed a laser show instead. Banff, a resort town in Canada, switched to quiet fireworks last year to protect wildlife — as did the Italian town of Collecchio in 2015.
But there are more risks than just noise. Viewers watching fireworks from the beach, for example, can trample birds that are still nesting in the summer. And used firework shells, now often made out of plastic rather than the traditional bamboo, contribute to high volume of plastic debris on land and in the ocean that threatens birds. A 2015 study published in the journal PNAS estimated that 90 percent of seabirds have likely ingested plastics, though Brown says the issue can also affect other birds as well.
"And of course when they're eating this plastic, eventually these chicks will starve to death from not having any nutrition," Brown says.
So what do you do if you want to watch fireworks responsibly? Brown says municipalities are more likely to be aware of these dangers than private consumers. His best advice is to stick to the shows put on by professionals and local governments, which tend to follow guidelines put forth by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, among others, about animal safety.
The National Audubon Society offers similar guidelines: "Commercial fireworks are concentrated in one location, rather than in several locations at once, which is what often happens in neighborhoods. This allows birds to take off and land again in a 'safer' location rather than continuing to flee noises coming at them from all directions."
Francesca Paris and Ed McNulty produced and edited this interview for broadcast.
SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
Independence Day is just around the corner, and we know our dogs and cats may not really appreciate those bombs bursting in air. But what about our other animal friends who might be in the air? Well, that is a question for Ray Brown.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCKIN' ROBIN")
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Tweedly-deedly-dee, tweedly-deedly-dee, tweedly-deedly-dee, (ph).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: A bird show - I like that. I love birds.
MCCAMMON: Ray Brown hosts "Talkin' Birds," and he joins us now to talk about birds. Hi, Ray.
RAY BROWN: Hi there, Sarah.
MCCAMMON: So give us an idea. What is the threat that fireworks pose to birds?
BROWN: There are a few threats, really. I think the biggest one, though, is the noise, and you were talking about our pets, for example. Well, birds have something of a similar reaction when they hear that sound. They tend to panic and take off from wherever they are and fly around in the dark and crash into things.
MCCAMMON: Yeah, and there've been a few cases of this documented, right? The Audubon Society, I think, said something like 5,000 red-winged blackbirds died on New Year's Eve in 2010 after an illegal fireworks show in Arkansas, and there've been others.
BROWN: Right. You know, as bad as the Fourth of July fireworks can be for birds - and they can be pretty bad - it's probably worse at New Year's Eve because then you have big groups of many species of birds that are roosting together in big flocks. So you just have that great number of birds that can be dispersed by the sound of those fireworks and then go crashing into things as happened there and it was in Beebe, Ark., I think in 2010.
MCCAMMON: So I worry - I mean, I worry about the birds, but I also worry that we're bumming everyone out before we head into the Fourth of July celebrations here. Ray, is there any solution, or do we just have to cancel it all?
BROWN: Well, you know, some places have banned fireworks altogether. There was a town out in California that tried to ban them. There was a lawsuit by the citizens of the town. It was a two-year legal battle. The Supreme Court of the state eventually ruled in favor of the ban, so that does happen. On the Galapagos Islands, they've banned fireworks. What's interesting, though, is there they make an exception for fireworks without noise.
MCCAMMON: Wait, what?
BROWN: I know. It does reduce the fun for a lot of people but, you know, if you're having these fireworks really away from big populations of birds, of course, the problem is much less. You're just not going to affect that many birds if you're doing it in the city, for example.
MCCAMMON: And I think I read somewhere that one big central show is probably better than lots of people shooting them off in their backyard if you're talking about the impact on the birds.
BROWN: Absolutely because, you know, for one thing, there are many fewer locations in a given area where this will happen. So it kind of gives the birds a chance to get away from wherever that sound is coming from. They're not going to fly from one area and then be bombarded with sound from another area. Also, the municipal groups that are doing these shows generally are following some rules and regulations that would help protect the birds, so they're not placing these fireworks particularly in areas where birds are nesting, for example. That's another big issue because people like to watch fireworks at the beach, and you end up with instances where birds are nesting on the beach still at this time in the summer and being trampled by people trying to walk along the beach and look at the fireworks. The Fish and Wildlife Service, for example, has established special rules for fireworks on beaches. So municipal organizations are likely to follow these rules, whereas private consumers maybe not so much.
MCCAMMON: All right. Well, Ray, however and wherever you spend your fourth with or without fireworks, I hope it's a good one.
BROWN: Thank you, Sarah, hope yours is.
MCCAMMON: And I thank you for your time.
BROWN: Thank you so much.
MCCAMMON: That's Ray Brown, host of the "Talkin' Birds" podcast.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARIANNE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.