By Shane Cashman
At first, everyone seemed to have a different reason as to why the crows were falling out of the trees and dying. It was God and the End Times, homemade poison or chemtrails, 5G towers or secret military weapons—or it was the result of UFOs flying too low.
It had been happening for weeks. Between December 2019 and January 2020, a few hundred dead crows were found scattered across the Wallkill Shopping Plaza’s parking lot in Wallkill, New York. There is a supermarket, a gym, and a few banks—so people were encountering the dead birds as part of their daily routine.
It got so bad that Jessica Landry was stepping over dead crows on her way into the gym. She remembers crows roosting in that specific area every winter, and she knew people who’d seen dead crows there before, one or two maybe, but never anything like the mass die-off that took place that winter.
They call it a bird kill—or the mass death of birds at a specific location, at a specific time.
Soon after Jessica found a sick crow, still alive, she called the Department of Health. She knew something was wrong with the crow because it didn’t get spooked as she moved closer. Its eyes appeared erratic—as if something was wrong neurologically.
The Department of Health told her they were aware of the situation, and that the Department of Environmental Conservation (or DEC) was collecting samples for testing.
By January 24th, most everyone in the area had learned about the dying crows. Although the parking lot seemed to be the epicenter, people were finding them on their properties, in the roads, and around nearby stores. It was as if the dead birds had become part of the weather pattern.
The Wallkill Police even sent out an emergency text to warn the local citizens about the crow problem:
“Residents, if you find dead crows on your property please handle them using proper gloves/protective gear…”
The dead crows got my attention toward the end of January that year—and I remember thinking they must’ve been poisoned. No necropsies had been performed yet, but the event seemed so targeted. It was only crows, and it was only that location. It might sound strange, but there’s a town nearby that attempted to destroy all of its Canadian Geese in 2013—legally. Federal agents rounded up a few dozen geese and euthanized them. I thought that it was possible that the Town of Wallkill, or someone in Wallkill, had set out to do something similar to the crows.
But about one month later, COVID-19 began to overwhelm the news. As far as we knew, the virus hadn’t really moved through North America yet, but I couldn’t help but wonder if there was any connection between it and the dead birds. I’d come across some studies published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information that discussed the coronavirus in crows. It seemed possible.
At the time, there were as many answers for the dead crows as there was for COVID. So, I felt compelled to ask the DEC what they thought. Maybe the mass crow death was some type of predictor. They don’t say “canary in a coalmine” for nothing.
The DEC wasn’t concerned about the event having anything to do with COVID—but tests were still underway.
The dead crows were brought to the Wildlife Health Unit in Delmar, NY where necropsies “were performed to assess the species and body condition and to look for lesions that might indicate a cause of death. In this case, the DEC ruled out West Nile Virus (common crow killer, but not in winter), Avian Reovirus (can kill crows at winter roosts), and Avian influenza.”
They also completed a wide-ranging virology screening, bacteriology, toxicology, and histology—an examination of the bird’s tissue at the microscopic level. On top of that, they sent samples to pathologists at Cornell University and at the Southeast Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study where further necropsies were performed.
In January 2020, before the results were released, a DEC spokesperson told a local news outlet, “At this time, it is safe to assume that the vast majority of the dead crows involved in this mortality event died of the same cause. Crows are susceptible to avian reoviruses which can spread rapidly and cause significant mortality in communal roost settings like this one.”
But none of the tests turned up any answers. No traces of virus or bacteria. The crows mostly had empty stomachs—so it didn’t seem like anything they were ingesting either.
After the results came back negative, the Town of Wallkill issued a Dead Crow Update on their website.
“The [DEC] spokesperson hinted the investigation into this series of crow deaths might end similarly to other investigations into crow deaths: with no clear explanation.”
The lack of answers only reinforced a lot of peoples’ initial feelings: it must’ve been an act of God, the work of sinister neighbors, or the byproduct of something paranormal.
Once most of the simplest solutions had been ruled out, I fought the urge to immediately jump to the most far-reaching theory.
If you poke around various forums online which discuss bird kills, you’ll find many who attribute the mortality events to air pollution. And that’s probably a fair assumption.
However, this doesn’t really jive with various reports that came out during spring 2020—when we saw a rare surge in bird kills. What else was happening in the spring of 2020? Industry had more or less been freshly shut off thanks to worldwide COVID lockdowns. Viral images showed surprisingly clear skies. People in India were able to see the Himalayas for the first time in decades as the smog cleared. That doesn’t mean we cured air pollution overnight, but I can’t imagine all those clear skies could’ve accelerated bird kills.
I reached back out to the DEC about the possibility of pollutants in the crows.
They said, “no specific test for air pollution is available… and an inhaled toxin that resulted in rapid death may not be detectable in tissues.” They would first need an idea of what kind of toxin to look for—although they did look for possible pesticides in the birds’ systems. And that, too, showed up negative.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture an estimated, “500 million to possibly over 1 billion birds are killed annually… due to anthropogenic sources including collisions with human-made structures such as vehicles, buildings and windows, power lines, communication towers, and wind turbines; electrocutions; oil spills and other contaminants; pesticides; cat predation; and commercial fishing by-catch.”
Unexplained bird kills have probably been happening since before humans learned to build fire. Sometimes the answers for previous die offs have been totally natural, albeit strange, occurrences—like a typhoon sucking up wildlife, transporting them across land, and dropping them on unsuspecting towns.
The U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center says, “175 mass death events exceeding 1,000 birds have occurred over the past ten years.”
It’s hard to know where my fixation with the dead crows ends and where my total lack of faith in governmental bureaucracy begins. The DEC seemed transparent and willing to discuss their findings, but it troubled me that we would have to accept a non-answer.
I was curious what else could be to blame for the Wallkill event, and eventually came across the work of Russian veterinarian Afanasiy Ilich Tobonov. In the 1990s, he investigated a rash of bird kills taking place in Russia and learned that fuel from space rockets that had been launched from the nearby Cosmodrome was destroying birds. He discovered that the plague of bird kills had been happening along the same flight path as the space rockets. Many of the birds were incinerated from the fuel.
Although none of the DEC’s reports stated anything about physical damage, it made me think that it was possible that something else was going on in the air that caused the birds harm.
We don’t have any space rockets getting launched nearby, but the Stewart International Airport is about a twenty-minute drive east from the parking lot in Wallkill. I wondered if the crows had been, somehow, colliding with airplanes coming in for arrival.
When I asked the DEC if any of the crows exhibited signs of pre-mortem trauma, perhaps from airplanes, they said the birds had only, “minor bruises that could be consistent from falling from a tree or sky… but nothing significant.”
Regardless, birds have become something of a mortal enemy to airports.
Ever since the pilot Sully Sullenberger was forced to emergency land in the Hudson River because of geese hitting his plane, the Port Authority has ramped up its efforts to destroy birds in areas that surround airports. According to The Guardian, as recent as 2017, the NY Port Authority has killed up to 70,000 birds roosting near airports.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has favored the Port Authority of NY to lawfully kill birds that could cause emergencies. However, crows are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918—but, then again, so are geese. And the same Port Authority also happens to oversee nearby Stewart Airport, which, as it turns out, was behind the program to kill all the geese in the town not far from Wallkill. But since the reports I’ve read concerning airports and bird populations typically concern shotguns or clandestine abductions with government vans, the crows really don’t seem like they were part of a plan to clear flight paths.
There have been multiple bird kills in the last decade that have shown evidence of brutal trauma and still have no clear answers. I reached out to a few people who also investigated their own local unexplained bird kills. I’d hoped I might be able to learn something from their investigations that I could bring back to the DEC—who, I should say, may or may not have regretted humoring all my questions as I forced my way in as an unofficial member of their team.
On January 3rd, 2011 approximately 500 red-winged blackbirds, brown-headed cowbirds, starlings, and grackles were found brutally and fatally injured in Labarre, Louisiana.
Dr. James LaCour, a veterinarian who worked the scene, recalled what he saw.
“It was mostly blackbirds—located on LA Highway 1. There is a row of Willow trees on the west side of the highway with two train tracks—and divergent power lines—and a drainage ditch that parallels the highway.”
You’ll notice that people who’ve investigated bird kills are compelled to mention everything geographical and man-made to make sure every potential threat has been catalogued and scrutinized.
“There were many dead birds in the road and many live, injured birds in the cane field to the east of LA. 1,” he said. “Of the dead birds, most showed severe trauma with many of them exhibiting hemorrhaging at the base of the skull… All of the bird carcasses that I examined exhibited signs of pre-mortem trauma. Broken beaks, broken necks, broken backs, broken wings and legs… fractured organs, as well as lacerations and contusions, were discovered during necropsies.”
He notes that there was a weather-front with heavy winds that did pass through the area the night before. He wrote in his report that “although not proven, there was strong evidence that a roost of birds was somehow flushed into traffic and power lines resulting in severe traumatic injuries and death.” But he’s still unsure.
Three days earlier, 3,000 red-winged blackbirds and starlings fell out of the sky in Beebe, Arkansas—350 miles north from Labarre.
You can listen to 911 calls from the incident:
“They are, like, bleeding out of the mouth and some of them are not dead. I think they have been poisoned,” said one caller.
The authorities in Arkansas say the starlings were the result of a private fireworks display—that the birds, in their shock, couldn’t process the stress, and died from terror trying to escape the loud, bright explosions.
As officially inconclusive as these large die offs are, especially given their proximity in time, at least they have some clue as to what caused it—whether or not the authorities are all in agreement. One year later, on New Year’s Eve, another few hundred birds fell from the sky again in Bebee.
If you start negating what should be the simplest answers—one allows their reasoning to suspect causes outside the accepted norms. (You might recall CNN’s Don Lemon speculating that missing Malaysian Flight 370 could’ve disappeared through a black hole.)
Which brings me to the intersection of mass bird death and government conspiracy: the Birds Aren’t Real movement.
Birds Aren’t Real might be the dogecoin of conspiracy theories, as in it’s possible it started out as a joke and morphed into something that borders on the absurd and serious.
The movement claims the government started killing off a vast amount of birds in the 1950s and replaced them with bird-drones to create a vast spy network in the sky to monitor the American people.
When you first hear about it, you’d be forgiven for laughing—but there is at least some precedent to something similar.
The CIA is known to have trained birds to be spies during the Cold War. And there was the Acoustic Kitty project where the CIA implanted microphones in cats’ ear to spy on Soviets. (The cats were unable to be trained as proper spies and the project was closed.)
As for governments killing animals, especially birds (much like the destruction of roosts near airports) this is nothing new. The Pentagon has invested $50 million in a project that uses drones to perform what they call “oiling”—a process in which bird eggs near Navy airfields are sprayed with “food-grade oil” that prevents them from hatching.
Although it happened for vastly different reasons, we’re not alone in our need to prevent emergencies by killing animals en masse. When Mao Zedong ruled China, he started what was known as the Four Pests Campaign. For the sake of hygiene, Mao demanded the eradication of rats, mosquitoes, flies, and sparrows. Entire communities would actively hunt down and destroy sparrows to such a degree that eventually the lack of the birds allowed the locusts to flourish. The bugs were the main prey of the sparrow—and this caused a biological imbalance which might have helped usher in the Great Chinese Famine since the locusts were allowed to eat their way through entire crops without trouble.
Unless our government has hatched a secret plan to eradicate crows, there has yet to be any such proof here. (It is 2021, though, and we should know by now that anything is possible.)
You can freak yourself out if you start to see the proximity in die offs as part of some larger nefarious scheme—as opposed to coincidence.
Within a few weeks, thousands of birds were falling out of the sky in 2011—Louisiana, to Arkansas, Italy, and Sweden. That doesn’t include many other wildlife die offs around the same time—like the thousands of fish that washed ashore along the Arkansas River.
In the absence of any clear answer as to what happened to the crows in Wallkill, I decided to entertain one of the crazier theories I’d come across. It falls somewhere between reasonable and absurd, possibly closer to the later rather than the former—and that’s the High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program in Fairbanks, Alaska, or HAARP.
HAARP is high-power radio transmitter that takes up almost 40 acres and, according to its official bio, it heats “small regions of the ionosphere” and studies the effects. “With a facility like HAARP, it is possible to perform an experiment at will to create plasma structures and irregularities, use the ionosphere like an antenna to excite low frequency waves, create weak luminous aurora-like glows and a variety of other experiments.”
In an age where someone like Bill Gates has made serious efforts to find a way to literally block out the sun with dust (search for SCoPEx), you can see why scientists heating up the ionosphere, might lead some to believe that something nefarious is taking place at HAARP––or that some unintended consequences might be born out of such experiments.
One of the better-known fears is that HAARP might be some kind of weapon that can manipulate the weather. (And this might sound crazy unless you’ve read recent reports such as the development of China’s “weather modification” system, or the cloud seeding we’re doing across our western states. The U.S. military has been playing around with weather control since at least the late 1960s with Operation Popeye where the Air Force attempted to exacerbate rainfall over Vietnam by seeding clouds in hopes of activating floods and landslides.)
This is all to say that no matter what is happening today, at HAARP or elsewhere, it’s not hard to imagine that this must have some impact on wildlife.
Birds interact with the magnetic field that surrounds earth. They do this, according to Dr. Henrik Mouritsen, with sensors in their eyes called cryptochromes.
Essentially, the Earth is a magnet and the cryptochromes help migratory birds navigate the atmosphere.
The reason HAARP comes into play is because it heats up the atmosphere that causes some to worry that this might have a negative impact on birds. Especially if you think about the ways birds sense the magnetosphere.
Whatever is happening to the crows, and other birds, is so far undetectable. As of now, it’s a totally invisible threat—which is why I thought of radio frequencies, charged atmosphere, and the way birds navigate the sky. And I can’t stop thinking of the way Jessica Landry described the crow’s irregular eye movements—as though it had encountered something that damaged, or fried, its brain—or, more specifically, its cryptochromes.
It reminded me of the way diplomats got sick in the U.S. embassies Cuba and China because of supposed “directed pulsed radio frequency energy.”
I spoke with someone who has worked closely with HAARP and deals specifically with the ionosphere—and because I wasn’t given official permission through the Air Force Public Affairs office in time, this source must remain anonymous. I asked if he thought any disturbances in the ionosphere, like the ones created by HAARP, could have any effect on birds.
“The region that HAARP modifies is essentially [outer] space (typically at altitudes 2x-3x higher than Sir Branson reached with his recent flight). So, really, it can have no impact on the atmosphere regions where birds fly. I’ve never seen effects on local geomagnetic fields near HAARP either. Solar storms have an impact on the magnetosphere/ionosphere many orders of magnitude more than anything HAARP can do…”
It has been studied, though, that changes in the ionosphere can disturb the birds’ senses. According to Phys.org, “German scientists found that migrating robins became disoriented when exposed to electromagnetic fields at levels lower than the safety threshold for humans…. The tests show a ‘reproducible effect of [man-made] electromagnetic noise on the behavior of an intact vertebrate.”
The report goes on to explain how “powerful solar storms—particles blasted out from the Sun that slam into the Earth’s magnetic field—can cause radio noise that leaks through the ionosphere and disrupt homing pigeons…”
As far as I can tell, I’m not sure if this can kill birds directly. But I don’t think it can be effectively ruled out either—knowing that disturbances in the ionosphere can disturb birds. To what degree, has yet to be determined. Supposedly, HAARP doesn’t operate at dangerously powerful levels. Forgive me, though, for not throwing my complete trust into any governmental program—especially ones that have the power to heat up even a small patch of the ionosphere.
Throughout the writing and researching for this story, thousands of flamingos have died in Turkey and approximately 5,000 homing pigeons went missing during a race in the United Kingdom. We know that the flamingoes died because of severe drought. As for the pigeons, people are still guessing.
A man who lost many pigeons in the UK has reached out to me with good news. Some of the birds are returning slowly, from what seems like oblivion. One of them happened to fly down from the sky and land on a boat 80 miles out at sea. Rumors of a solar storm. Nothing certain.
I could probably devote the rest of my life to cross-referencing every time HAARP was switched on, or mapping out every solar storm, with every unexplainable bird kill around the world—and I wouldn’t be any closer to some biblical prophecy or cosmic understanding. In the void of questions without answers, speculation can manufacture whatever reality it chooses. The one thing I do know is nature is cruel, and it owes us no answers.
(Some surnames have been changed upon request)