Mystery solved over hundreds of birds found dead on road in Spain

UPDATED; Police in Catalonia are investigating the discovery of several hundred dead starlings on a busy road in northeastern Spain.

Mystery solved over hundreds of birds found dead on road in Spain
A murmuration of starlings. Photo: AFP

The birds were found dead on the tarmac of the C-31b highway between Tarragona and Salou on Sunday afternoon.

Several drivers reported the unusual massacre to emergency services after coming across the bird carcasses littering the asphalt.

The bird deaths have been reported to the Catalan police force and a unit dedicated to rural crime are investigating.

The dead birds have been sent for analysis to study the cause of death in the hope of solving the mystery.

Local environmental groups speculated that the deaths may have had something to do with toxins in the air in view of the fact that there are several large petro-chemical plants in the vicinity, which is close to the site of a recent explosion.

The GEPEC ecology group said witnesses in the area had reported “strong smells” although a tweet from emergency services seemed to contradict that.

Such mass deaths of starlings, known as 'estorninos' in Spanish are not unusual and can occur completely naturally.

A similar incident in Anglesey in Wales just before Christmas also produced head-scratching amongst local detectives before the investigation concluded that the birds had died on impact with the road while trying to escape a predator.

Starlings often flock together in their thousands to form what is known as a murmuration, an amazing sight most often visible just before dusk as the birds search for a place to roost.

But if the group is targeted by a bird of prey, such as a peregrine falcon, it can send the murmuration into evasive action which may disorientate the birds and cause fatalities if they fail to pull up in time to avoid impact with the ground.

That was the conclusion from the incident in Anglesey with a statement from police there stating: “It’s highly likely the murmuration took avoiding action whilst airborne, from possibly a bird of prey, with the rear of the group not pulling up in time and striking the ground.”

But it appears that in the case of the Tarragona starlings it was a vehicle colliding with the murmuration after the birds flew too close to the road that led to the mulitple deaths. 

On Wednesday it emerged that footage recorded on CCTV had captured the moment of the collision.


READ MORE: Why have thousands of dead fish washed up in southern Spain?

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Police operation targets illegal water tapping in Spain

More than 130 people were arrested or placed under investigation for illegal water tapping last year, Spain’s Guardia Civil police said on Wednesday following a huge operation.

Police said most of their operations took place “in fragile and vulnerable areas such as the Doñana natural park”
Police said most of their operations took place “in fragile and vulnerable areas such as the Doñana natural park” in Andalusia. Photo: CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP

During the year-long operation, “133 people were arrested or investigated for extracting water through more than 1,533 illegal infrastructure devices”, the police’s environmental unit said in a statement.

A similar operation in 2019 had targeted 107 people.

Spain is one of the European countries most at risk from the impact of drought caused by global warming, scientists say.

Water usage issues are often at the heart of heated political debates in Spain where intensive agriculture plays an important role in the economy.

Police said most of their operations took place “in fragile and vulnerable areas such as the Doñana natural park” in the southern Andalusia region, one of Europe’s largest wetlands and a Unesco World Heritage bird sanctuary.

They were also operating in “in the basins of Spain’s main rivers”.

In Doñana, police targeted 14 people and 12 companies for the illegal tapping of water for irrigation, a police spokesman said.

Ecologists regularly raise the alarm about the drying up of marshes and lagoons in the area, pointing the finger at nearby plantations, notably growing strawberries, which are irrigated by illegally-dug wells.

“The overexploitation of certain aquifers for many reasons, mainly economic, constitutes a serious threat to our environment,” the Guardia Civil said.

The European Court of Justice rapped Spain over the knuckles in June for its inaction in the face of illegal water extraction in Donana which covers more than 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) and is home to more than 4,000 species, including the critically endangered Iberian lynx.

According to the government’s last official estimate, which dates back to 2006, there were more than half a million illegal wells in use.

But in a 2018 study, Greenpeace estimated there were twice as many, calculating that the quantity of stolen water was equivalent to that used by 118 million people — two-and-a-half times the population of Spain.

Spanish NGO SEO/Birdlife also on Wednesday raised the alarm about the “worrying” state of Spain’s wetlands.