By Jake Stump
CLARKSBURG — Teachers and students at Tucker County High School got an unusual surprise when they showed up to class to find hundreds of dead birds scattered along the parking lot and school property.
Assistant Principal Mickel Bonnett encountered birds swarming around the school and flying into the windows when he came to work around 6:30 a.m. Monday.
"They were swarming around the lighted entry trying to get into the school," Bonnett recalled. "I thought that was unusual, and then I saw dead birds. I saw more birds flying around and banging into the glass and decided to call the superintendent."
Bonnett said he thought the birds were attracted to the lights inside the school as it was dark outside.
One after one, they continued smacking into the side of the school, plummeting to their death.
"Anywhere that had light shining out, they were flying their bodies into the glass," Bonnett said. "It was instant death. They broke their necks and were lying in piles by the door. Some were out by the track, the driveway, spread all over the place. I figure some of them didn't hit so hard, fractured their skulls and died elsewhere."
Officials closed the school Monday morning after fears that toxins might have killed the birds. Several of the creatures were left stunned and recovered.
"At that point, it was not known what was causing the death of the birds," said Tucker County Sheriff Tom Felton, who arrived at the school around 7:45 a.m. "There were hundreds outside and scattered along the parking lot and roads, in close proximity to the school."
West Virginia Division of Natural Resources spokesman Hoy Murphy said wildlife officials at the scene found the birds piled up against one wall under a window, on the roof and scattered throughout the school grounds.
The DNR believes that the birds, which were mostly yellow warblers, were migrating from North America to South America for the winter.
They theorized that the birds became disoriented from the fog and lighting around the school and proceeded to fly into structures.
"Migratory songbirds migrate at night and use stars to navigate," Murphy said. "If stars are obscured by clouds or fog, they will orient to almost any elevated light source to attempt to navigate."
Heavy fog was blanketing the area early Monday, and it's likely that the illumination from the school lured birds in, he said.
The school, located in Hambleton, sits on a hill and remains lit at night.
"This sort of attempt typically leads to a mortality event as the birds circle the light source, become exhausted and either collide with objects or are grounded from the exhaustion -- this is likely what happened here," Murphy said. "The same thing happened a couple of years ago when a very bright light was left on during fall migration on a foggy night at the (nearby) Fairfax Stone wind power facility."
Other types of birds also included thrushes, around 10 warbler species, yellow-billed cuckoo, catbird and sparrows, said DNR ornithologist Rob Tallman, who was at the scene.
Tallman said this type of problem isn't all that unusual in the fall season. He said similar incidents have occurred around cell phone towers, Snowshoe Mountain Resort and other facilities.
"We're trying to remedy the situation by turning the lights off for the short-term and providing them with other lighting options that aren't as attractive to birds," Tallman said.
The neighboring windmills, which are believed to pose a threat to bats and birds, were not considered a cause of the deaths, officials said.
Windmills are located about a mile from the school.
Tallman said officials visited a nearby windmill site Monday and only found a couple of dead birds that had been there for several days.
Classes resumed later this morning at Tucker County High School.
Maintenance workers at the school and DNR officials were busy most of Monday collecting the birds in garbage bags.
For precautionary measures, DNR wildlife disease specialist Jim Crum has requested samples to be analyzed for avian flu.
Officials said there were 100 percent certain, however, that this wasn't the cause of a virus.
"It's something I'd never seen before," Felton said. "Before I became sheriff, I worked about 21 years with the health department as a county sanitarian and five years as a state sanitarian. I'd never seen anything like it."