Special Investigative Report: Staten Island Mystery

28 December 2007: Witnesses described the events during the afternoon of December 21, 2007 “as something from a movie” – birds dropping from the sky in mid-flight over a small area on Staten Island, most of them dying before hitting the ground. Birds that did not die in mid-flight reportedly “landed, lied on the ground, flapped and died.” The most recent estimates of dead birds currently range between 50 and 75, with the majority of the birds being Purple Martins. Most of the birds dropped from flight within the Port Regalle development near the intersection of Wiman Avenue and Tennyson Drive, on the southeastern shore of Staten Island.

According to information obtained from two separate witnesses, residents on Staten Island complained of a strong, chemical-like odor in the vicinity where the birds died. “It was a ‘heavy’ smell, so strong that I could barely stand it outside,” stated Jonathan B., a witness from the area who asked that only his first name and last initial only be used. “I called emergency services, and they said that emergency personnel were on the way. They told me to stay indoors and make sure my doors and windows were shut,” he added. “I asked what was causing the smell, and the dispatcher said she didn’t know, but they had several calls from the area. It was a strong, acidic smell, nothing like anything I’ve ever smelled before,” he added.

Press reports quote FDNY Battalion Chief John Giacella describing the situation when his department responded: “When we pulled in, most of the birds were on the ground, floundering and foaming at the mouth.” Donna Toti, speaking to the press, was quoted: “It was like Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds.’ Birds were just falling out of the sky. They would land, lie on the ground, flap and die.”

A second source who contacted the Northeast Intelligence Network said that she was concerned not about the birds or the odor as she neither smelled the odor nor witnessed the birds, but observed a lot of “unexplained helicopter activity” in the area and “especially over the harbor,” a reference to the Great Kills Harbor. About a week before the birds dying, “I saw helicopters flying in circle patterns over the harbor, occasionally entering inland and flying back out to the harbor,” said a female who requested her name not be used. “I’ve lived here [on Staten Island] long before 9/11, and have seen a lot of things before and since, but not to the extent I saw last week,” stated this source. “I’m not sure if the helicopters were military or police, but what I do know is that they were definitely looking for something,” she added. This source stated that she could not make out any identifying markings on the helicopters.

It is unknown if the helicopter activity is related to the dead birds, but reports of helicopter activity is not unusual, according to an article in The Gothamist. In September 2006, they reported about a secret program conducted by the Department of Energy where federal helicopters were surveying Staten Island, looking for areas registering abnormal radiation activity – the material dirty bombs are made of.

Is the notable helicopter activity over the harbor related to the unexplained odor and the death of dozens of birds? Authorities are not saying much about the dead birds, the origin of the odor, and are not commenting on the helicopter activity. Investigation by this agency verified that health department officials collected as many of the birds they could find within hours of the incident, and reportedly sent the dead birds to a lab for testing. Officials from the New York City Department of Environmental Protection as well as the Office of Emergency Management were also on the scene.

Research conducted by Northeast Intelligence Network Associate Director Sean Osborne found that the wind direction and speed at the time the odor was noticed by Staten Island residents ranged from 10 to 13 mph and originated from the northeast. Accordingly, it is reasonable that the airborne chemical odor detected by residents of the Port Regalle development in Bay Terrace originated from an undetermined location within Great Kills Harbor – a particularly disturbing finding, considering that the origin would then point to a watercraft. Such an event would raise other disturbing questions and considerations, including the possibility of an intentional release of a toxic gas as part of an operational testing of the effectiveness of both the delivery and lethality of chemical weapons by potential terrorists.

In any event, the situation involving flocks of dead birds is not an isolated event. The Northeast Intelligence Network reported about a substantial number of birds falling dead from the sky in Austin, Texas in January, and in Washington, DC in July.

The causes remain unclear, but the concern is – and should be – real.