For the Birds Radio Program: Dropping out of the Sky

Original Air Date: Dec. 5, 2003 Rerun Dates: Dec. 27, 2019; Nov. 7, 2016; Nov. 16, 2015; Nov. 2, 2012; Feb. 17, 2009; Nov. 13, 2008; Nov. 9, 2007; Dec. 5, 2006; May 26, 2006; Dec. 26, 2005; Dec. 14, 2004

Laura talks about some birds that have dropped from the sky. Some recovered completely, like the Common Goldeneye that fell out of the sky after a heavy snowstorm in Duluth and ended up in Laura’s bathtub for a couple of days. Others didn’t fare so well. Date confirmed.

Duration: 5′16″


Falling out of the sky

The day after the 1991 Halloween storm that dumped 39 inches of snow on Duluth (the same storm system that became famous as the “Perfect Storm”), a female Common Goldeneye dropped from the sky onto the driveway of the city garage where snowplows are kept for my neighborhood of Duluth. She was dazed and exhausted, her wings iced up. The people who found her delivered her to me because I had a license to rehabilitate birds back then. She spent the next few days recovering in my bathtub, pigging out on brine shrimp, minnows, and dog food, until the roads were clear so I could release her in Lake Superior. She taught me the valuable lesson that it’s a good idea to tell your mother-in-law that there is duck in the bathtub BEFORE she goes to the bathroom..

Unfortunately, not all stories about birds that fall to the ground have such happy endings. When I was a fledgling birder in Michigan in January, 1976, I went out to fill my feeders one frigid morning at first light. A tree sparrow flushed from the ground into a spruce tree as I passed. As I poured seed into the feeder, the little bird dropped out of the tree, dead. I’ve never known for sure what killed it, but suspect that it had used up virtually all of its energy reserves staying alive over the long night, with the temperature 20 below zero, and either was so stressed that it had a heart attack or succumbed to hypothermia or starvation.

Last week, several birders who exchange emails on the national “Bird Chat” swapped stories about birds that drop out of the sky, or from telephone wires or tree branches, dead. It started when a Tennessee birder wrote, “Several years ago my wife and I were parked at a red light when an immature starling fell like a stone in front of our car and slammed into the pavement, dead as a doorknob. My wife remarked that the same thing had happened to her at another intersection a few weeks before. I wonder if anyone else has seen or heard of this phenomenon and if so if they might know what caused it.”

No one was sure what killed these starlings, but several others had witnessed strange and similar accidents. A Pennsylvania birder wrote, “A few years ago, as I was driving through my neighborhood, I saw two Mourning Doves on a wire. As I neared them, one fell like a rock into the middle of the road, dead. Very puzzling!”

A Kansas ornithology professor added, “When my oldest daughter (now 21) was in the fourth grade, she came home from school one spring day with a dead Magnolia Warbler. She knew that I would want it to use for a study skin to be included in our teaching collection. Apparently it fell from the sky and landed beside her on the playground during recess. There are no trees or utility wires above this playground, it is wide open space. We only get this species in migration, so at least the time of year was right. But they usually migrate at night.”

A birder in the military added, “My only experience with this was last October and November 2002 when I was deployed with the Air Force in Kyrgyzstan. Over a period of several days in late October, dozens of birds were found on several mornings lying around the camp. Warblers, sparrows, some rails, shorebirds, a heron or two…all for no reason. There were no tall objects or structures which the birds may have flown into, so they died for no apparent reason. It did cause a concern, since the camp was new in a former Soviet State, but it happened and then went away, with no other effects noted.”

An Indiana birder noted that she saw a tree get struck by lightning, and then several starlings dropped from the branches, all dead. A California birder saw two bird-falling events that weren’t so tragic. He wrote, “When I was a kid, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker fell out of a tree to land at my feet. As I looked down in amazement, the bird looked up at me and flew away. Another time I saw two American Kestrels with locked talons tumble to the ground, glare at each other, split and fly off separately.”

If you’ve got a story like these that you’d like to share, email it to or mail it to me in care of this station.