ASSAWOMAN, VA (Delmarvanow.com) - A local teen's horseback riding lesson ended abruptly after she was hit in the head by a foot-long hunk of raw chicken that fell out of a cloudless sky.
Fortunately, what hit Cassie Bernard was the smallest of three or more poultry parts that rained down on Queen Hive Farm around 6 p.m. Wednesday as owner Jennifer Cording was giving a lesson to a group of advanced students while several parents looked on.
"Three objects fell out of the sky in front of us, two larger and one quite small," Cording said.
Bernard, who was not injured, was wearing a riding helmet when the chicken hit her - protecting a rider from unidentified flying chicken parts is not the helmet's normal function, but it did the trick.
Officials from a nearby Tyson Foods Inc. processing plant denied that the flying chicken parts originated there. No matter what brand of chicken fell, a scientist later said high-flying seagulls probably were involved.
A Virginia Department of Environmental Quality official said the agency will investigate.
Land Protection Manager Milton Johnston of DEQ's Tidewater office said the parts more likely came from improperly composted dead chickens being spread on a nearby farm than from the Tyson plant.
DEQ staffers at the regional office with over a quarter-century's tenure said they have not encountered a similar complaint.
"We can't have pieces of chicken falling out of the sky," Johnston said.
Everybody at the farm looked up to see where the strange objects came from, but the clear blue sky didn't hold any clues.
"We didn't see any birds or anything," Cording said.
"It was kind of odd; it made me think about the movie back in the 1980s, 'The Gods Must be Crazy,'" said Bruce Penland, who was at the farm. The comedy recounts the strange chain of events that occurs after a soda bottle falls from the sky and lands among a primitive tribe in the Kalahari Desert.
Penland didn't see the poultry parts fall but later helped Cording bury the piece that hit Bernard. He described it as "a very fresh piece of chicken skin with no meat on it" and said it seemed too heavy for a gull to carry.
Cording immediately went over to investigate what had hit her student.
"It looked like pieces of eviscerated chicken," she said. The two pieces Cording was able to find were each about 1 to 1½ feet long - "narrow strippy sort of skins," she said.
Cording later found another part some 500 yards away while walking her dog.
Onlookers immediately began to speculate about the objects' origin. Some thought a turkey vulture had dropped them; one suggested it was an airplane.
But avian expert Bryan D. Watts, the director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary, said the culprits likely were gulls.
"I doubt it would be vultures because they don't typically carry things and they don't regurgitate in the air...It's more likely gulls, which we know carry chicken parts," Watts said, adding the birds could have been flying at high altitude, explaining why eyewitnesses did not them.
When scientists from the center monitored gull colonies in marshes on the Eastern Shore of Virginia's seaside in the past they encountered "a lot of chicken bones" coming from the area, Watts said.
Cording's farm is located between those marshes and the poultry processing facility in Temperanceville, about three miles to the west as the crow, or gull, flies.
Watts said while the parts pose no threat to the gulls, "the concern it brings up is the parts are supposed to be disposed of or covered; they are not supposed to be available to scavengers."
He said gulls tend to congregate on the grounds of poultry processing facilities, attracted by the smell, but said they likely would not continue to do so if they never found something to eat there.
Tyson Foods Inc. spokesman Worth Sparkman said the company doesn't know where the parts came from.
"We can tell you we don't have the only poultry plant in the area and that when we transport by-products our trucks are loaded inside, are covered with tarps and that we minimize the time each truck sits idle," Sparkman said, adding trailers carrying byproducts are unloaded in covered areas and each is washed after it is emptied.
Cording called an early end to the lesson after the bizarre incident, which was followed within the next half hour by one of her steadiest horses "that never acts up" running away with a rider and another horse crashing through a jump.
"It was one of those things around here that gives us something to talk about," said Cording, adding, "It was a weird night."