It was up to the University of Minnesota to find out why more than 750,000 birds fell from the sky one night in Southwestern Minnesota.
By Tim Brady, illustration by Kathleen Scott
It was 11 o’clock on the evening of March 13, 1904, when the village watchman for the town of Worthington in southwestern Minnesota first noticed the birds dropping from the sky. A heavy, wet snow was falling thick and steady but there was no wind. Audible thumps sounded as the birds crashed into stores, streets, and yards. They came down thickest near streetlamps and well-lit buildings. A night telegraph operator working on Main Street Worthington stepped outside his office to look and counted 61 dead birds on the single block where he stood. Another 100 birds had fallen into the soft snow on the ground and survived the crash, cold and stunned. The telegraph man took half a dozen to his home to warm and dry them and send them on their way the next day.
The town electrician noted the density of dead birds lying at the bases of city streetlights and beneath electrical lines. Others found birds trapped in the globes that covered those lights. The morning after, many people in town noted scattered lumps in the freshly fallen snow. These turned out to be dead or stunned birds, the latter of which eventually shrugged off their headaches and proceeded onward.
The courthouse lawn was littered with birds spaced no more than five or six feet apart throughout the square. Out on the ice of the two lakes adjacent to town, the temperature was warm enough to melt the snow that had fallen, but not warm enough to break up the ice. Smooth, clear sheets covered both bodies of water, offering the starkest image of the black birds in the area. From a distance they looked like raisins scattered on acres of glass.
The birds were all of a single species, the Lapland longspur, a songbird that summers in the Arctic tundra and winters in the midsection of the North American continent, where it feeds on seeds left in open farm fields. Lapland longspurs are known to migrate in flocks that sometimes reach into the millions. All the dead birds were apparently from the same massive flock. They fell in a dozen different towns and villages. Newspaper reports of the incident, called “the great bird shower” in at least one account, were found in towns in southwestern Minnesota, northwestern Iowa, and southeastern South Dakota. The two towns hardest hit by the birds were Worthington and Slayton, about 30 miles apart.
Aside from the obvious question—what happened?—the townspeople of southwestern Minnesota soon pondered a corollary matter: Whom do you call to answer a question like that? A physician from Slayton took it upon himself to begin the process. A day after the shower, he gathered seven or eight birds and sent them off to the University of Minnesota, where they soon arrived at the office of Dr. Thomas Sadler Roberts.
Though not yet head of the Bell Museum of Natural History, a position he would assume in 1915, Roberts was already a fairly well-known figure in the state and one of its most accomplished citizens. He had attended the young University of Minnesota for a couple of years beginning in 1877 before earning a degree in medicine from the University of Pennsylvania. He returned to Minneapolis after graduation and began a medical career that would take him back to the University of Minnesota, where in 1904 he was serving on the medical school faculty as professor of pediatrics.
For years, along with his academics and medical studies, Roberts had made a study of natural history, particularly ornithology. From the time he was a boy, he had explored Minnesota wildlife with his father and a like-minded group of Minneapolis friends who called themselves The Young Naturalists’ Society. He learned how to carefully skin birds for mounting, and later, as an adult, became a pioneer in the skills of bird photography and wildlife filmmaking. With the assistance of his office secretary, Mabel Densmore, he assembled notes for a definitive book on Minnesota birds; his notes became the basis for his landmark work The Birds of Minnesota. Roberts was acknowledged as the state’s most accomplished ornithologist, which is why the birds ultimately landed on his desk.
In all, about 40 towns and villages within a 1,500-square mile area reported dead birds in the streets.
One of the great purposes of the nation’s state university systems in the latter half of the 19th century was to provide scientific answers to questions that arise in communities like Worthington when, for example, thousands of birds suddenly fall from the sky. In ages gone by, bird showers in distant settlements, if they happened at all, were viewed as simply one of the many mysteries of the universe. In turn-of-the-20th-century-Minnesota, however, a doctor in Slayton could package up a handful of birds and send them via train to the University of Minnesota, confident that if an answer existed, it would be found there.
Examining the birds at his desk at the medical school, however, Roberts could find no discernible reason to explain the fantastic story of the bird shower. It was obvious from their battered and bruised bodies that they had all suffered serious trauma. But what caused them to fall from the sky was another matter. Roberts needed more information. So he sent Dr. L.O. Dart, a trusted assistant, to investigate.
Dart, another physician with a serious interest in ornithology, arrived in Worthington eight days after the incident and immediately began interviewing townspeople. Birds still lay thick around town and on the lakes, where they remained most conspicuous. Dart went out on the ice to the middle of both lakes and marked off a number of 20-foot squares on each. Then he counted the dead birds within each 400-square-foot measure, averaged them, and extrapolated the number of dead birds. His count, in both lakes combined, came to the phenomenal death toll of 750,000 Lapland longspurs in one fell swoop—just on the lakes. Getting a precise tally of how many died in the great bird shower was impossible then and remains so today.
More birds were found living and dead in towns around the area, including Avoca, Luverne, Heron Lake, and Sibley, Iowa. None were found in Pipestone, which suggested the western limit of the great bird shower. In all, about 40 towns and villages within a 1,500-square-mile area reported dead birds in the streets. Dart conducted post mortems on about 150 of the animals and found most had suffered skull fractures, various broken bones, broken necks, and cerebral and internal hemorrhaging—all injuries consistent with smashing from a height into a solid object.
By the time Roberts sat down to ponder all of the information Dart had gathered and write a report that would later be published in the Auk, the premier ornithology journal of the day, the surviving Lapland longspurs were back home in the tundra. As for his explanation of what happened to thousands of their fellow travelers on that fateful day in March 1904, Roberts’s conclusion was simple:
“It is plain enough that on that fateful night,” he wrote in the Auk, “there was an immense migratory movement of Lapland longspurs leaving the prairies of Iowa where they had passed the winter months for their summer homes in the Northland, and that becoming confused in the storm area in the darkness and heavy falling snow they were attracted by the lights of the towns and congregated in great numbers over and about these places. In their bewildered condition great numbers flew against various obstacles and were killed or stunned while many others sank to the ground exhausted. It would seem probable that a considerable number became wet and snow-laden by reason of the character of snow, and thus, unable to fly, were forced downward to the earth to be dashed to death . . . .”
The explanation still holds up. While rare, birds of many different feathers fall from the sky for seemingly unexplained reasons that turn out to be weather-related or related to bright lights, loud sounds, electrical currents, or disorientation. Because of the large numbers in which Lapland longspurs migrate, the fact that they move to the far north during unpredictable spring weather, and the fact that they are known to be attracted to lights, Lapland longspurs are particularly vulnerable to massive crash landings. In 1904, it was the warm villages of southwestern Minnesota that invited thousands of birds to their deaths on a dark stormy night in March.
Tim Brady is a writer living in St. Paul and a regular contributor to Minnesota. His book Gopher Gold: Legendary Figures, Brilliant Blunders, and Amazing Feats at the University of Minnesota is a collection of history stories that have appeared in Minnesota. He thanks Rebecca Wilson, project manager and metadata specialist at the University of Minnesota Archives, for uncovering the story of the great bird shower of 1904.