Over 100,000 Drum Killed in Arkansas River

By Robert J. Korpella

First posted on 01-03-2011

The day before an unusual bird kill in Beebe, a tug boat operator spied thousands of fish washed up dead along a 20-mile stretch of the Arkansas River between Ozark and Clarksville.

Arkansas Game and Fish Commission officials said today that the cause was most likely disease since all the fish appear to have been drum. Results of testing by the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff will not be available for about a month.

Travis Harmon of the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality noted that, “Barges reported passing up river and churning up dead fish from the bottom of the river.” He added that, “[When] a single species is killed, and we don’t know the cause. If it was toxic, other species would be affected.”

Keith Stephens of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission agreed. “The fish kill only affected one species of fish,” he noted. “If it was from a pollutant, it would have affected all of the fish, not just drum fish.”

Estimates have been placed at over 100,000 fish killed and their bodies continued to float to the surface Monday, four days after the initial report, and along the same stretch of river.


drum fish are bottom feeders so their deaths will probably not affect other fish. Birds do not eat bottom feeders either so bird deaths do not relate to drum fish deaths either.

By ron on January 07, 2011 – 2:26 am

Whoops, my bad I pasted the same link twice instead of posting one of the ones I meant to include. Here it is (about bird E. Coli carried by fish)


By James on January 05, 2011 – 12:34 am

Two articles that are relevant to the fish->bird pathogen hypothesis:




If fish can carry bird E. coli without harm, and many of them suddenly die, numerous birds could be exposed to a nasty (for blackbirds at least) E. coli strain all at once.

On the other hand, it doesn’t explain why the kill would be so tightly localized. I’m leaning towards weather or a combination of a scare and weather as the most likely hypothesis. Perhaps they got scared up, ran into bad weather, and then crashed. Perhaps air battered them in the sky and then dumped the injured birds over a small area, where they sustained further injuries on impact. Who knows?

By James on January 04, 2011 – 10:16 pm

James has this right. Red-winged blackbirds will feed on carcasses of dead animals(carrion). My wife and I were talking this morning about this issue and my biology background immediately connected the deaths of the birds and fish. The birds habitat is wetland areas. These birds most likely were hanging out where the dead fish were on the banks and ate some of the carcass. A poison in the fish is likely what killed the birds too. The fish kill is the key and unless the diagnosis of the dead fish is less then objective, I’m speculating with a fairly high degree of certainty that a toxin of some sort got in the Arkansas river and killed the fish, then the birds. It’s not impossible to imagine that the toxin was heavier then water and stayed near the bottom of the river which is where drum fish hang out primarily. Also, if the toxin came from drums or other container types that fell off a barge and sank to the bottom, that could also be why the toxin remains on the bottom only. The heaviest water or other matter in the water will be at the bottom due to density. I sure hope they turn over all the rocks and figure this out and don’t cover up anything. Some of the theories about how the birds died, reading other news articles, are just ridiculous.

By Gregory Davis on January 04, 2011 – 9:07 am

Hmm so how long does it take an injured Red-Winged Blackbird to fly from Beebe, AK to New Roads, LA? (sounds like a Monty Python question, doesnt it?)

Perhaps injured birds made it there before dying, in which case there should be other dead birds along the way. It seems like a remarkable coincidence.

Thanks for the info about what you saw on CNN.. this emphasis on the blackbirds and all of them being dead is strange if it is not in fact the case.

By James on January 03, 2011 – 9:59 pm

CNN has a clip where the reporter finds a bird that is not dead yet the morning after the incident in Beebe.  The clip also shows a bird that is not a red-winged blackbird.  There’s also another reported bird kill now at New Roads, LA (near Baton Rouge).

By Harry on January 03, 2011 – 9:37 pm

Yeah I heard about the trauma thing too. If that is the case there should also be a large number of injured but not dead birds. It seems plausible that a huge flock of birds got startled and many bumped into things because they aren’t adapted to flying at night, but I would expect a wide variety of injuries, with only a fraction proving fatal.

By James on January 03, 2011 – 9:32 pm

That’s an interesting idea, James, especially considering the time frame of these two occurrences. I do understand that preliminary study of the birds indicates trauma, as if they had struck something or been struck by something and residents have reported hearing several loud booms prior to the birds falling. An explosion shockwave?

Ronnie, I think the AG&FC;has sent fish to the UofA and birds to ornithologists for study.

By Robert J. Korpella on January 03, 2011 – 7:43 pm

Where is the CDC, The WHO and others! What the heck is the Game and Fish commission going to do but give us numbers!

By Ronnie on January 03, 2011 – 6:54 pm

Apparently there is thought to be no connection between the fish kills and the bird deaths. Since blackbirds are known to eat carrion (according to wikipedia) I hope they have considered the idea of a bird pathogen that drum happen to be susceptible to (or the reverse). Although it’s unlikely that the same disease would kill both birds and fish, perhaps the possibility should be considered. They should keep their eyes open for deaths of other scavenger birds in the area (which might not flock and thus not die in so dramatic a fashion).

By James on January 03, 2011 – 5:26 pm