The Great Rush of Birds on the Night of March 29th-30th, 1911

By R. M. Barrington, M.A.
Published in the Irish Naturalist Vol. XX, June 1911

On the night of March 29th, a great rush of birds was observed in several towns of S. E. Ireland, and also at some light-stations long the coast from Balbriggan to the Old Head of Kinsale.

Newspapers for week or more afterwards, contained accounts of extraordinary flights, and probably the most convenient method of illustrating what occurred, is to give extracts from private letters lent chiefly by my friend Mr. R. J. Ussher, and reports from newspaper correspondents.

I interviewed the light-keepers at Balbriggan and Rockabill, and some of the seamen who were on board the lightships at Blackwater Bank, Lucifer Shoals, and Coningbeg.

Information was also received from Howth Bailey, the Tuskar, South Arklow light-ship, Barrels light-ship, Hook Tower, and the Old Head of Kinsale.

As regards the towns, most birds appear to have been noticed at New Ross, Waterford, Carlow, Kilkenny, Carrick-on-Suir, and Dungarvan. Smaller numbers were observed at Clonmel, Bagenalstown, Lismore, Enniscorthy, Gorey, Greystones and Bray.

Mr. C. B. Moffatt states that it was a “tremendous night of Curlew cries over Dublin”

Many species were reported, but Starlings predominated largely ; then Curlew, Thrushes, Blackbirds and Redwings ; and after these, a heterogeneous collection of other species.

The relative numbers of each, as well as the variety, must be inferred generally from the reports of correspondents, few of whom were trained observers.

The specimens sent by the light-keepers are, of course, the best evidence. A list of these, received as to May 20th is given hereafter.

On the night in question, an exceptional number of bids was seen at the following light-stations : – Balbriggan, Rockabill, Howth Bailey, Arklow S light-ship, Blackwater Bank, Lucifer Shoals, Tuskar, Coningbeg, Hook Tower and Old Head of Kinsale, extending along a coast line of 200 miles.

The following are extracts from letters etc.

WATERFORD:- Mr. Peter Griffin writing on March 30th says:- “Last night, between ten and twelve, an extremely large number of birds was seen hovering round the city. The telegraph wires along the quay were full. Where there was any light in a window they were dashing against it. A post office official opened a window and a number of birds flew in. A postman when cycling across the bridge said that the birds were so numerous that he was struck by them several times. Between four and five in the morning they appeared like a cloud which covered several miles, and ‘flew in a N.E. direction’. Many remained about the city. Hundreds were found dead, especially along the quay. Those that were caught could only fly two or three feet. The majority were Starlings, but many were like the Thrush and some Blackbirds. An Oyster-catcher was captured.

Another WATERFORD correspondent, Mr. Friel says “Last night, March 29th-30th, about ten o’clock the Curlew were passing over the town and crying far more than usual. While the men were working at the new bridge with flare lamps many hundreds of Starlings came fluttering round. The birds were in the thousands on the tarpaulins along the quay, opposite the post-office. In addition to Starlings I hear one Field-fare was found.”

NEW ROSS:- A correspondent of the Freeman’s Journal writing on March 30th says:- “About ten o’clock last night a swarm of Starlings, numbering several thousands descended no the town, filling the streets, houses, and yards.”

“Numbers got into the houses, and broke the windows in their flutterings, whilst vast numbers dropped on the river Barrow, beside the gas-lights, and were drowned.”

A correspondent of the Daily Express at New Ross stated that:-“The strange visitation of Starlings, which created such interest, continued, but in smaller numbers till April 2nd, and on the night of which several were killed.”

CARLOW:- A correspondent of the Freeman’s Journal at Carlow reported that :-“On the night of March 29th the sky was almost obscured by vast numbers of Curlew and Starling, which were reinforced by Wild Duck, Blackbirds, Thrushes and Woodquests. The streets were practically littered in the morning with the bodies of dead birds.” He also reports that a great multitude of Starlings was observed over Bagenalstown, which is also on the river Barrow, bout twelve miles further south, and that on the following day, a man ploughing in a field near the town, reported that Starlings were continually alighting on the plough and the horses.

Mr. Haughton of Carlow, writes :- “I noticed the following birds dead on the morning of the 30th, Starlings and Redwings, the former in large numbers and on Brambling, a rare visitor. About fifty birds were found on my premises. For a day or two afterwards I noticed large flocks of Seagulls and other birds about the locality. The migration evidently came from the S.W. judging by the position in which the dead birds were found. There were a few Wild Duck and other birds among them but I think they joined the flocks s they passed over the estuary. Some accounts of the flight are much exaggerated.”

KILKENNY. – An Irish Times correspondent writes on March 30th :- “t may interest some of your readers to know that during last night hundreds of birds of various kinds, Curlew, Sparrow, Thrush, Blackbird, etc., fell dead. The roads leading to Kilkenny and the market place in the city, were the places where they were most noticed, but even the surrounding fields had their quota.”

CARRICK-ON-SUIR. – Mr. J. Ernest Grubb, writing on March 30th says : – The bird migration has been most extraordinary here. Starlings, Cormorants, Herons, Curlew, Thrushes, Blackbirds, Snipe, Redwing and Gulls. A man who lives on the bank of the Suir told me that at about eleven or twelve o’clock he was awakened by the screaming of birds, and dressed and went out, and in the light o a gas-lamp saw eight or nine Herons, two dozen Gulls and Water-rails, and five or six Cormorants and Curlew walking up and down the flat bank at the edge of the river, screaming piteously. They were all gone in the morning.

Mr. J. H. Power of Carrick-on-Suir says: – “About eleven o’clock last night flocks of birds began tumbling into the streets, some dead, and others not able to fly. I saw heaps f them to-day dead and all in good condition. One man told me he got twelve on the hearth in the morning which had tumbled down the chimney. The whole bird creation was astir and the people of the town were kept awake by the shriek of the Curlew, Duck and Snipe hovering over the town. The birds were going N.E. Starlings and Redwings were in masses ; Thrushes, Blackbirds, Skylarks, Tit-larks, Snipe and an Owl were also picked up dead. The night was very dark. I distinguished the Redwing by the streaks about the head and brick colour under the wings. The Song Thrush has buff under the wing. For some days after Starlings and Redwings were feeding in the fields and quite weak.” The wing of a Redwing was forwarded.

DUNGARVAN – Mr. R. J. Brennan says :- “The night of the 29th of March was dark and calm until 10.30. Suddenly, before eleven o’clock, light rain and fog began and flocks of Starlings were observed in the Square. They flew wildly about, as if terrified and bewildered, striking against windows, walls and gas-lamps. On the morning of the 30th several dead birds were found. The night watchman states that he saw the birds departing in a N.E. direction.”

Another Dungarvan correspondent says :- “I looked towards one of the gas-lamps at eleven p.m. and the whole air seemed one mass of small birds.

LISMORE:- Mr. Fanning writes :- “On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, the last three days of March, there was observable a state of excitement amongst birds, and particularly Starlings. On these nights, Curlew were heard calling continuously over the town of Lismore. On Saturday night April 1st, the air was full of them. The nights were dark and foggy, and the birds kept hovering over towns where gas-lamps were lighted. These are no gas-lights a Cappoquin, and no birds were observed there.

CLONMEL – Mr. Burns of the ‘Clonmel Chronicle’ reports: – “On the morning of Mach 30th a number of Starlings were found dead near St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church as if they had dashed themselves in the darkness against the spire.

The above extracts from letters and newspapers illustrate what happened over several inland towns. The bird-rush of March 29th was also observed at Enniscorthy, Gorey, Greystones and Bray : but the numbers at the last three named towns were very small.

In order to show the number passing up the Channel the following extract from the ‘Irish Times’ of April 1st is of interest, as giving the experience of the captain of a steamer plying between Liverpool and Drogheda.

Captain Kirwan who was in command of the L & Y Rly. Company’s steamer, “Colleen Bawn” is reported to have said that : – “On the night of the 29th March about eleven o’clock, after crossing Drogheda bar, millions of birds joined the boat. Amongst them were a number of Curlews.

“On the following night, coming from Liverpool, about twelve o’clock, large numbers of birds came on board and flew all around the steamer. They appeared very tired as if they had traveled a long distance and did not know where to alight in the darkness. About three a.m. an enormous mass hovered round and perched on every part of the vessel, including the funnel. At five thirty a.m. when thirty miles from the Irish coast, the birds flew in all directions from the steamer as if they were looking for land.”

Turning now to the light-stations on the coast, the most northerly from which any special number of birds was reported is Balbriggan.

Mr. E. A. Kennedy, light-keeper, at an interview said :-“A rush of Starlings commenced at eleven p.m. on March 29th , and continued until four a.m. the next morning. Fifteen were picked up dead.” This is a small mainland lighthouse at the end of a pier. Mr. Kennedy states that this was the only occasion during his six years residence that any birds were killed.

ROCKABILL: – Mr. Henry T. Murphy, light-keeper when interviewed said “The night of March 29th was dark ; wind E.S.E light, with drizzling rain, and that about 150 birds were killed, chiefly Starlings, one Woodcock and one Manx Shearwater, and a large number of Blackbirds and several Thrushes. Several Water-rail and Curlew were also observed flying about.

On March 31st I received from this station ;- Four Woodcocks, one Snipe, one Meadow-Pipit, two Water-rail, one Dunlin ; all said to have been killed on the night of the 30th. Possibly they struck on the previous night and were not found till the day after. Rockabill lighthouse is four miles from shore.

HOWTH BAILEY LIGHTHOUSE:- No report has yet reached me from the light-keeper, but the Secretary of the Irish Lights Board writes that the fog-siren was choked with dead birds on the night of April 1st.

No account has yet been received from three lightships all situated about ten miles from shore along the Dublin and Wicklow coasts, namely the Kish, the Codlings and North Arklow.

SOUTH ARKLOW:- Ten miles from the north Wexford coast. Mr. J. J. Reilly, light-keeper writes:-“March 20th, Blackbirds, Starling and Thrushes in large numbers about the ship all night ; from eight p.m. on 29th to four a.m. some hundreds striking, forty killed. Wind light, N.E., hazy. March 31st, Blackbirds, Starling, Thrushes in large numbers about ship all night until six a.m. Wind light, N.E., hazy. Birds going N. N.W., 80 killed striking. The ship was covered with Starling and Blackbirds on the morning of the 31st, and on April 1st Starlings in numbers rested on the ship from eight a.m. to four p.m., and then flew N.W.” Leg and wing of Water-rail received.

A “Chaffinch and Goldfinch” also seen. Two Goldfinches (leg and wing of one received) were killed striking on April 2nd and in this connection it….(Sorry! Missing end of page)

BLACKWATER BANK Lightship, ten miles from Wexford, send:- One Starling and one Thrush, killed on the 29th, also Water-rail and Wheatear, the former of which died exhausted, and the latter struck the mast.

Patrick Cogley, A.B., said in an interview that he came on the watch at four a.m. on the 30th, and “never saw so many birds at any night for thirteen years, ten to twenty Starlings were found killed, besides what fell overboard. Thrushes and Curlew were about the light, and two Wheatears, a Robin and a few Linnets.”

LUCIFER SHOALS Lightship:- This station has not yet forwarded any specimens, but Patrick Magrath, A.B., who was on board on March 29th, says that the birds began to strike at 9 p.m. Wind light E., hazy. He was on duty till 4 a.m., and birds were coming the whole time. About 60 Starlings were killed, besides those which fell overboard, also two Blackbirds, a Thrush and a few Skylarks.

TUSKAR Lighthouse:- Seven miles from shore. This is a famous lighthouse off the extreme S.E. corner of Co. Wexford. Mr. A. O’Leary, the keeper, writes:_ “There was an enormous lot of Starlings on the night of March 30th ; the rock and balcony were completely covered with them and several hundreds were killed. There was also a lot of Thrushes and Blackbirds.” Mr. O’Leary forwarded a Redwing, Wheatear, 2 Blackbirds, Water-rail, 1 Black Red-start, and a Meadow-Pipit.

BARRELS Lightship:- Turning the corner of the south coast of Wexford, we come to this station, ten miles from the shore, and here, the testimony of Mr. Grant, the light-keeper is most remarkable ; for he states that “no birds were killed during the month of March, and no unusual flights were noticed.” This can only be accounted for by the fact that the sky must have been perfectly clear close to the ship on the night of March 29th.

CONINGBEG Lightship: – This is about fifteen miles west of the “Barrels,” and ten miles from shore. Matthew Murphy, siren man who was on the watch from 8 p.m. and (was interviewed on March 30th) said – that in (missing last line here!! – sorry again). Forwarded was a Water-rail killed striking on March 29th.

HOOK TOWER: – A light at the extreme end of a long narrow promontory extending in a S.W direction at the mouth of Waterford Harbour. Mr. J. Devaney, the assistant keeper, writes, on March 30th. :- “I am forwarding a bird (Water-rail received) which struck the lantern this morning. Thousands of Starlings, Blackbirds, Thrushes and Manx Shearwaters were around the lantern all night and hundreds were killed. It was very dark and gloomy, and wind N.E.”

OLD HEAD OF KINSALE:- After Hook Tower there are no south coast lighthouse records until we reach this mainland lighthouse, from which Mr. Martin Kennedy, the light-keeper writes on March 30th, thus :- “I am posting today 6 Robins, 2 skylarks, 2 Wheatears (all received). They were killed at the lantern between 10 and 11.30 p.m. last night. It is most remarkable about the 6 Robins ; I only remember getting one before – at Rockabill. 136 Starlings were found killed or dying, this morning after the night, also 2 Shearwaters.” On April 2nd Mr. Kennedy forwarded a wheatear, Black Redstart, Stonechat, and Meadow Pipit, killed the previous night between 9 p.m. and midnight. He reports that the lantern and balcony were covered with hundreds of Starlings but not one was killed.

If the map of Ireland be consulted, it will be found that the distance from Balbriggan to the Old Head of Kinsale is about 180 miles, measured across country in a direct line ; and that, with the exception of 6 town situated along the Rivers Suir, Barrow and Nore, namely Waterford, Carrick-on-Suir, New Ross, Bagenalstown, Carlow and Kilkenny, no ‘great’ flight of birds was observed anywhere inland. Those seen at Lismore, Clonmel, Enniscorthy, and Gorey were comparatively few.

Some persons consider that the birds were departing from instead of arriving in Ireland. I think this view untenable, for, if one thing more than another stands out perfectly clear, it is that the great bulk of the birds which are observed at light-stations are always making ‘for’ not ‘from’ the land. This conclusion is arrived at from thousands of records collected during thirty years as to the direction of flight. (see – “”The Migration of Birds as observed at Light-houses and Light-ships.” London & Dublin, 1910). The paucity of specimens sent at the season of departure corroborates this. Why would the Jack Snipe, Dunlin and Purple Sandpiper strike on the South coast of Ireland in Spring? For they cannot be ‘southward’ bound! Then, the Snow Bunting and the Brambling, which do not breed in Ireland are killed striking long after those which have wintered with us have left. But the most convincing reason of all is the commonsense argument, why should birds select a misty night with fog for leaving Ireland? And why should they be found ‘exhausted’ at light-houses and light-ships, on shore, or a few miles from shore?

Birds, like human beings, do not start on a journey under unfavourable conditions, if it can be avoided. On the contrary, they refrain from doing so, but they cannot tell, any more than we can, the meteorological conditions that they are likely to meet with after a flight of 60 or 100 miles across the sea.

If the birds were leaving Ireland on March 29th, why is it they were not seen in Cork, Limerick, Dundalk or Belfast? Why were the Starlings in these neighbourhoods quiescent?

A correspondent on the River Lee writes :- “No rush of birds was observed in this locality.” Mr. R. W. Longfield says :- “No abnormal flight of birds was observed in the Bandon River or thereabouts.” Mr. Kelly, postmaster of Youghal says :-“No one has observed an inrush of birds on March 29th.”

Surely portion of the Shannon valley would have been the natural route of Starlings from West of Ireland And yet from Carrick-on-Shannon to Limerick, there is no report of any migration. Wherever the direction of flight is given it is totally at variance with the suggestion that the birds were ‘departing’.

Mr. Griffin says, between 4 and 5 in the morning they appeared like a cloud, which covered several miles, and flew in a N. E. direction from Waterford.

Mr. Haughton of Carlow, states that the birds evidently came from the S.W., judging from the position in which the dead bodies were found. If that be so, then they were clearly flying N.E.

Mr. Power, of Carrick-on-Suir says the birds were going N.E. The night watchman at Dungarvan says that they departed in a N.E. direction. The light-keeper at South Arklow says the birds were going N.N.W. on the 31st.

It would be explicable if such an enormous mass of birds should collect long the S. and S.E. coasts, and then retrace their flight in a N.E. direction, if ‘leaving’ Ireland.

If the birds were arriving, their distribution is easily accounted for. After crossing the mouth of the Channel, the coast of Wexford was first reached and here the stream divided itself into two branches, one going up to the east coast, and the other along the south coast. Those which pursued the latter course soon arrived at the wide entrance to Waterford Harbour, up which many of them flew, and, following the line of least resistance traveled along the valley of the Suir, to Waterford, Carrick, and Clonmel ; others followed the Barrow, a tributary of the Suir, and arrived at New Ross, Bagenalstown, and Carlow. Others followed the course of the Nore, which joins the Barrow above New Ross, and reached Kilkenny. Those which overshot Waterford Harbour kept the coast-line until they reached Dungarvan Bay, and a few went up the Blackwater valley to Lismore.

The Old Head of Kinsale birds were probably a bewildered off-shoot of the main body, which became detached in mid-channel, and took a westerly direction. The Enniscorthy birds came up the Slaney, and the few seen at Gorey probably did like-wise.

The flocks seen ten mils from shore at Lucifer Shoals, Blackwater Bank, South Arklow, and along the coast at Balbriggan, came up-channel without touching Wexford at all.

But what is the reason that this great rush of birds took such a western route, and collected in such numbers? The solution to the problem is to be found in what may be called a “combination of co-incidences.” The “Wonderful Battell of the Birds,” described in the Cork Archaeological Journal as having taken place between the 12th and 14th of October 1621, may have been due to an analogous cause.

It is a well known ornithological axiom that birds, in the Northern Hemisphere, usually breed in the most northerly portion of their range. Immense numbers annually towards the end of March move northwards through Spain and France to their breeding haunts. This year, for weeks previous to the 29th of that month, cold northerly or easterly winds prevailed over France and the British Isles, and birds though desirous to migrate were held back by the weather, and many species which would otherwise have traveled separately, collected in the South of Europe like passengers at a railway station, anxious to proceed upon their journey, but unable to do so owing to a breakdown on the line.

To this cause, I attribute the ‘extraordinary’ number of birds, and as the temperature was much milder on the west coast of France and in Brittany than in central France, they took a more westerly course than usual, unwilling to face the bitter N.E. winds.

The following tables compiled from the daily weather charts show the direction of the wind at the mouth of the Channel, and the fluctuations of temperature over central France for ten days previous to the 29th March.

In Table I. it will be seen that the wind was almost continuously N. or E., but that it suddenly changed to the S. at Valentia, Pembroke and the Scilly Islands on the morning of the 29th ; and Table II. shows that the aggregate rise of temperature at ten French stations on that day amounted to 73 degrees, or an average of over 7 degrees at each station. This favourable change, coupled with a southerly wind in the mouth of the Channel, so to speak, liberated the birds, and the wind still continued N.E. and E. over England, they decided to take a longer and more exhausting course than usual and travel towards Ireland and then turn N.E.

Unfortunately for the birds, the change took place ‘exactly’ on the last day of the last quarter of the moon, the very worst night, as far as darkness is concerned, that could have happened for the birds. (See “The effect of the Moon’s phases on the number of birds killed striking,” page 7 of my “Migration of Birds”).

Having crossed the Channel a bank of fog and drizzling rain was met with near the Irish coast, formed by the condensation of the moisture in the warm south wind when it met the Arctic current, which had not yet ceased over England.

The weary travelers, believing that their journey was almost concluded and baffled or bewildered by the fog or mist which probably extended twenty or thirty miles from the Irish coast, were attracted by the lighthouse lanterns, and subsequently the glare of the town lamps.

To Mr. C. B. Moffat I am indebted for various suggestions when writing this paper.