10 Times It Has Rained Something Other Than Water

Is that a rain cloud? Nope, it's a flock of migrating starlings. DeAgostini/Getty Images

What's that up falling from the sky? You usually see rain, sometimes hail or snow, depending where you live. But what if you saw fish or frogs? Or blood or worms? All of these have been reported at various times in history.

But how can it rain things not made from water? In truth, these objects don't really fall from the clouds. More likely, they're swept up from the ground via a tornadic waterspout, a column of air that forms over land and then spins over the sea. It's strong enough to suck up any small objects in its path and carry them along. Once the waterspout loses energy, the objects start falling down to Earth [source: The Library of Congress].

That's not the only way strange items have "rained" down on people. Sometimes, it's just a misunderstanding. People may report that it's raining worms or birds, for example, when a strong storm simply washes worms out of their underground burrows or knocks birds from their treetop perches [source: The Library of Congress].

That being said, there are still some cases of raining objects that remain a mystery. We'll explore both the explainable and the unexplainable in our list, starting with a very fishy story.

Spiders spin a giant web by a tree. Aurore Martignoni /EyeEm/Getty Images

It's a good thing that of the 40,000 or so species of spiders in the world, only 23 are considered social. One of these social species, Anelosimus eximius, gathered for a little party one day in 2013 in Santo Antonio da Platina, Brazil. The next thing the residents knew, spiders were falling from the sky [source: Nuwer]. As they'd say in Portuguese, que horrível!

This arachnid species, which lives in colonies that can number in the thousands, likes to gather together later in the afternoon or in the early evening and create enormous webs to trap insects for their next meal. The webs can be as large as 65 feet tall (19 meters), and stretch from the ground up to tree canopies or buildings. When the spiders are in these webs, they can look like stars in the sky. Normally, they stay in their sticky webs and wait for dinner to come calling. But if Mother Nature calls in some strong winds for the night, the webs can be blown off their anchoring points and carried away. At some point, when the wind weakens, they'll rain down to earth. Hopefully, no one will be in the vicinity when this happens [source: Nuwer].

Thousands of frogs landing on a town would scare anyone. Ronald Leunis / EyeEm/Getty Images

In 1873, a frog-fall smote Kansas City; ditto for Dubuque, Iowa, in 1882. What was puzzling in both of those cases was that there were no bodies of water nearby. Experts theorized the Kansas City event was due to a tornado elsewhere that had carried the frogs to the city. Scientists studying the Dubuque case similarly believed the frogs were sucked up by a powerful wind, then encapsulated into hail before being dumped onto the unsuspecting citizens of Dubuque. More recently, in 2005, thousands of frogs fell from the sky into a town in Serbia. This frog-dumping occurred during a powerful storm, which a Serbian climatologist said was the reason behind the event [source: The Library of Congress].

While these explanations are the same as those for the fish-falls previously discussed, there might be additional reasons for frog rains. One is that the frogs aren't falling from the sky after all. Some people get so excited at the possibility, that they extrapolate the occurrence from a common one. It's possible that a major storm can drive frogs from their normal habitat. So if you look outside during a heavy storm and suddenly see frogs hopping around everywhere, you might think it was raining frogs, when actually the frogs hopped to your yard on their own.

When Mrs. Crouch saw those meat-like flecks falling out of the sky, she could never have imagined they were vulture puke. Prakhar Rajvanshi / EyeEm/Getty Images

The year was 1876. The locale: Olympia Springs, Kentucky. One Mrs. Allen Crouch was outside, minding her own business, making soap, when large flakes of meat drifted down around her. They looked like beef. The sky was clear, which puzzled Mrs. Allen Crouch all the more. The flakes, roughly 2 inches by 2 inches (5 centimeters by 5 centimeters), coated the ground and stuck out of the fencing. Mrs. Crouch, smart woman that she was, left them there. Two men stopped over a day or so later, when the flesh chunks were now dried and spoiled. They ate some (ick!) and described the flavor as that of mutton or venison [source: Crew].

Samples of the "meat" were taken and analyzed. One report by a Leopold Brandeis, published that year in Scientific American, said the substance was nostoc — a freshwater, blue-green algae often found in moist places in jellylike colonies. Typically smaller in size, Brandeis said this nostoc must have swollen with water when it rained down upon the Crouch household. The only problem was that it wasn't raining that day. So it couldn't have been nostoc [source: Crew].

Luckily other scientists received samples and did additional analyses. The consensus, published in the American Journal of Microscopy and Popular Science, was that they were a mix of cartilage, muscular tissueand lung tissue.

But what was that tissue from, and why did it rain down on Mrs. Crouch? We'll never know for sure. L.D. Kastenbine, a professor of chemistry in the Louisville College of Pharmacy, claimed the substance — which he confirmed was a mix of connective and fatty tissues and muscular fibers — was the stomach contents of a bunch of vultures who projectile-vomited it when flying over the Crouch residence. (The two vulture species found in Kentucky do sometimes barf as a defensive measure, or to lighten themselves for flight.) This was not Kastenbine's own theory; he said he heard it from "the old Ohio farmer," but clearly it was "the only plausible theory" [source: Kastenbine]. Sounds good (and gross) to us.

Hay has been observed falling out of the sky several times. A.T. White/Getty Images

You can watch this on YouTube. It's pretty amusing. On a pleasant, sunny day in England in 2011, a man is taking a video, presumably in his backyard, of clumps of some substance slowly drifting down from the sky. "What the heck is going on?" he says as he shoots the scene. "What is it?" A young woman, laughing, runs around picking up the yellowish tufts, then brings them back for him to record. The substance is hay. Hay ?!

Sometimes on warm, summer days, the toasty earth emits a puff of warm air — a thermal — that rises into the sky. Thermals can grab items as they rise, typically light and easily transportable objects such as hay or other dry grasses. It's also pretty common for thermals, which can swirl like tornados, to pick up dust and sand. The higher the thermal rises, though, the more it cools. At some point, it cools so much that it drops its baggage. Hence the hay shower recorded in 2011 [source: Bartram].

(Another one occurred in 2014.)

At times thermals can be pretty strong. 2011 must have been a banner year for them in England. In addition to the event we described earlier, another thermal plucked worms from the ground, and later nonchalantly dropped them on unsuspecting kids running around outside for gym class. And a third thermal that year rained down hundreds of apples [source: Bartram].

Yellow Rain
Dr. Amos Townsend, a retired US Air Force colonel interviews a Laotian victim of yellow rain at Ban Vinai Refugee Camp for Hmong people fleeing across the border to northeast Thailand, 1982. Alex Bowie/Getty Images

The Hmong coined the term "yellow rain" in the 1970s, following the communist victories in Southeast Asia. Back then, the new regimes were angry with the Hmong, who had been allies of the U.S. and fought against them. In 1975, the Hmong began reporting they saw an oily, yellow liquid falling from aircraft. The liquid sounded like rain when it hit the roofs of their houses, which led them to dub it "yellow rain."

Soon after, the Hmong suffered a myriad of health issues, including seizures, blindness and bleeding from the nose. Some even died. Yellow rain was also reportedly dropped on the Afghans who fought the Soviet Union's invasion in 1979, and on Khmer tribes in Cambodia around the same time [sources: Schneider, Inglis-Arkell].

So what is yellow rain, exactly? The U.S. government investigated and accused the Soviets of using trichothecene mycotoxins, a poison made from a fungus that can be used as a biological weapon. (The Russians denied their involvement). On the other hand, many scientists, even some American ones, said it could be the feces of giant Asian honeybees swarming through the air in large numbers. Or else, bee poop tainted with a fungus. When the yellow rain dried, it became a dust that contained pollen. Given the geopolitical implications of yellow rain, the source may remain in dispute for a long time [sources: Schneider, Inglis-Arkell].

Blood/Red Rain
Here are some red rain specimens collected during the Kerala downpour. Wikimedia Commons

When heavy rains hit Kerala, a coastal state in southern India, in 2001, people were concerned about a strange phenomenon. The "rain" was red, and it stained their clothes. The colored droplets fell on and off over a two-month period, in very localized spots, diminishing over time. While sometimes the rain took on yellow and green hues, the main color was blood-red [source: Darling].

Initially, some suspected this unusual activity was caused by an exploded meteor, as some early eyewitnesses reported hearing a boom and seeing a flash of light shortly before the red rain first fell. The next thought was that the cause was scarlet sand blown in from Arabia, which mixed with the rains. But studies showed that the red particles extracted from the water were not grains of sand. No, the ruby flecks appeared to contain cells of a biologic origin. In fact, they looked quite like those of bugs [sources: The Living Moon, MIT Technology Review].

One duo studying the particles — Godfrey Louis and his research assistant, A. Santhosh Kumara, of Kerala's Mahatma Gandhi University — came up with a unique theory. The red rain, they said, got its color from extraterrestrial organisms. Taking the booming noise into consideration, Louis posited a comet disintegrated, its pieces seeding clouds, which then encapsulated them into raindrops that fell to earth. His results were published in 2006 in the peer-reviewed journal Astrophysics and Space [source: MIT Technology Review]. The Indian government's conclusion? Airborne algal spores from local trees [source: Darling].

Louis continued studying the red cells with an international team of researchers. The group reported that while the cells are inert at room temperature, they reproduce when heated to 250 degrees Fahrenheit (121 degrees Celsius), something highly unusual. DNA also has been found in the cells, but it can't be extracted [sources: The Living Moon, Darling].

No one can explain the phenomenon with any certainty. (And no meteoric dust was found in the samples.) However, those who believe in the extraterrestrial theory say it's evidence of panspermia, a theory that life can be seeded on various worlds from space. In 2012, red rain once again fell from the skies of Kerala [source: Ians].

A flock of red-winged blackbirds swarms over some withered grass in Oregon. Danita Delimont/Gallo Images/Getty Images

About 5,000 red-winged blackbirds rained down from the skies in Arkansas late on Dec. 31, 2010, most of which were dead or dying. A few days later, a similar event happened in Louisiana, involving some 500 red-winged blackbirds. Some people would say hundreds — and certainly thousands — of birds falling from the sky must be very unusual. Not as much as you might think. A representative from the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center said over the last three decades, there have been 16 incidents where more than 1,000 red-winged blackbirds simultaneously died, falling from the sky like rain [source: NBC News]. What's going on?

In both of the cases mentioned, the birds showed signs of acute trauma. The Louisiana birds were found near a power line; experts say the creatures may have been ill or startled, flew into the power line, then plunged to their deaths. In the Arkansas case, the birds were deemed to have died midair. Since it was New Year's Eve and fireworks were exploding in the skies, the theory is that the birds were startled and panicked, flying into homes, cars, each other and even straight into the ground [source: NBC News].

Why red-winged blackbirds in both cases? They're one of the most common bird species in the U.S., with some 200 million in residence. They also fly in close proximity to one another and have poor eyesight [source: NBC News].

A duck swims by a boom on a river holding hundreds of dead fish in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the Lakeview District of New Orleans, Louisiana. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

While it's certainly not common for the skies to rain down fish, it has actually happened in more than one spot around the globe. In 1947 in Marksville, Louisiana, a variety of fish began falling from the heavens: largemouth black bass, goggle-eye, hickory shad and two types of sunfish. The fish, 2 to 9 inches (5 to 23 centimeters) in size, were falling as closely as one fish every square yard (1 square meter).

More recently, in 2010, hundreds of spangled perch fell on a small town in the Australian Outback on two consecutive days. The small, white fish, common in this northern part of Australia, were alive when they hit the ground. Locals say this same phenomenon happened in 2004 [sources: Nobel, News Corp Australia].

What explains it? Scientists say tornadoes or the updrafts common with thunderstorms can be powerful enough to lift fish out of the water as they swirl over lakes or seas, then carry them long distances before releasing them when the updrafts lose steam. Waterspouts can snatch and carry fish as well. They can fly along at a 100-mile-per-hour (161 kph) clip, which is certainly strong enough to suck up and carry some fish [source: The Library of Congress]. No one can say for certain whether one of these phenomena caused the above-noted fish-falls. But it certainly seems plausible.

Leaf-cutter ants, one member of the Cephalotes family, carry vegetation in the Costa Rican rainforest. Steven Kaufman/Getty Images

Most of us probably picture ants as creatures that march along, single file, a la the song, "The Ants Go Marching One-by-One." We don't typically think of them as falling down out of the sky. But it can, in fact, rain ants.

Cephalotes is a genus of tropical, tree-dwelling ants that can glide through the air. But unlike, say, flying squirrels, they don't glide across distances. When these ants are airborne, it's generally because they're falling. The gliding part comes in because they can steer their falls so they end up back on the tree trunk, where they can quickly race back home. Remaining on their tree home is essential to the ants' survival. The forest floor is often flooded — as much as half of the year — and falling into water equates to near-certain death. Even if the forest floor is dry, once tree-dwelling ants are on the ground it's difficult for them to find a chemical trail back to their tree nests; they'd likely be eaten before arriving safely home [source: Sanders].

How are the ants dislodged from their treehouses in the first place? Cephalotes ants forage for their food at the outer ends of their tree home's branches, where it's not uncommon for a sudden gust of wind to blow them off. Monkeys scampering by can also dislodge them. And if the ants feel threatened — say, by a lizard predator — they sometimes will jump or fall off the tree intentionally, knowing they'll be able to steer their falls so that they will land back on the tree, where claws on their back legs help them hold on [source: Sanders].

While many Cephalotes ants live in South America, three species are found in the U.S., specifically in Arizona, Texas and the Florida Keys [source: Sanders]. Another ant species, Formica aquilonia, found in Europe and Asia, also rains off tree branches in great numbers. One study found 30 percent will intentionally jump out of their tree when birds are foraging nearby [source: New Scientist].

Passenger Pigeon Dung
We had to use an illustration of a passenger pigeon, since they went extinct around 1900. Denis Kozlenko/E+/Getty Images

If you've ever been pooped on by a bird, you know it's no fun. But what if copious amounts of bird poop rained down upon you from the skies? That disgusting scenario likely happened to more than a few North Americans during the passenger pigeon heyday.

Billions of passenger pigeons existed in North America for hundreds of years before their sudden extinction in the wild around 1900. That's a lot of birds. Not only were they so numerous, but the pigeons lived together in a small number of enormous flocks of 1 billion or more. To help you picture it, in 1813 ornithologist John James Audubon rode 55 miles (88 kilometers) in one day, while a flock of the pigeons flew overhead. Audubon reported that the entire time he rode, the sky was a gray sea of birds from one end of the horizon to the other [source: Sullivan].

There are actually many reports from the passenger pigeon heyday of skies that were dark with birds. Other records note how the birds piled on top of each other on tree branches when they roosted in the winter, sometimes snapping the tree limbs off. In spring when they nested, as many as 500 might set up house in a single tree. Their dung would smother the tree trunks, often killing the trees. People said the smell of the pigeons and their droppings was horrendous.

With numbers like those, how in the world did these pigeons die out? Once people started building all over, the birds didn't have a whole continent to roam freely. Plus, they were hunted hard in the 1800s [source: Sullivan].


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Author's Note: 10 Times It Has Rained Something Other Than Water

I have never seen anything but rain fall from the sky. Well, that's not quite accurate. I've seen hail come down, and snow. It might be fun to watch a hay shower, assuming it didn't result in several hours of raking afterward, but I would not want to see any of the others. I can't decide which of these 10 would be the worst. I'd probably say the spiders or the passenger pigeon poop.

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More Great Links


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