Freaky weather: naked chickens and falling fish

Monday, August 3, 2009
by Diane Boudreau

It started out as a normal morning for A. D. Bajkov. He was eating breakfast with his wife in a restaurant in the small town of Marksville, Louisiana. Suddenly, a waitress hollered, “Quick, look! Fish are falling from the sky!” Bajkov, a wildlife biologist, ran outside to observe the strange event. The waitress was right—it was raining fishes.

fishThis event happened in 1949. But it wasn’t the first rain of fishes ever seen. People reported fish falling from the sky in India in 1830, Texas in 1886, Australia in 1906, and South Africa in 1909. The 1949 event was simply the first time a fishfall had ever been observed and recorded by a scientist.

Randy Cerveny loves weird weather stories. Over the past six years, he has collected more than 8,000 strange weather tales. Those tales include wacky stuff such as hailstones shaped like crosses. Or lightning strikes that cause your sweat to blow the clothes right off you. Even stranger: snow that turns blood-red when stepped on.

Cerveny is a climatologist at Arizona State University. He studies and teaches about weather and climate. He wrote a book describing some of the most interesting weather stories in his collection. The book is called Freaks of the Storm.

“The title is a phrase that was used in the early part of the last century to describe strange phenomena that occurred during storms,” Cerveny explains. “For example, when chickens would lose their feathers in a tornado, that would be called a freak of the storm.”

Sometimes, the stories of how people try to figure out freaks of the storm are as interesting as the freaks themselves. For instance, tornadoes sometimes leave chickens completely plucked of their feathers, but otherwise healthy. People wanted to know how this happened.

“At first people thought it was caused by wind speed. A scientist actually constructed a special gun and put a dead chicken in it and fired the gun to see if the force stripped it of its feathers,” says Cerveny.

The gun did strip the chicken, but scientists today do not believe wind speed is responsible for tornado pluckings. “Now we think chickens actually are doing something called ‘panic molt.’ This is common in flightless birds,” Cerveny says. “When they are scared, they lose their feathers. If a predator is attacking and grabs them by the feathers, the feathers simply come out and the chicken escapes.”

Not all freaks of the storm involve animals. In the mid-1800s, people in Swan’s Quarter, N.C. decided to build a church. The congregation wanted to construct the church in the center of town, but the landowner wouldn’t sell the land. Instead, the church was built on the edge of town.

Later, a hurricane flooded the city. Many buildings were destroyed, but the church wasn’t harmed. Instead, it floated away! It floated down the street, turned a corner, and finally came to rest right on the plot of land where the congregation first wanted to build.

“The owner decided that someone was sending him a message, and he sold the land to the church,” Cerveny says. The church is still there today.

And what about those falling fish? Where did they come from? Scientists aren’t completely sure. The most likely explanation is that the fish are picked up by waterspouts. Waterspouts are basically tornadoes that happen over water. The storm picks up the fish and drops them over land, often miles away. However, no one can explain why people only see fish falling. Why wouldn’t the waterspouts pick up plants, shells, and other water creatures and drop them over the land, too?

Science is all about answering questions. But one answer often leads to lots more questions. That’s what makes it fun. There is always more work to do.