Aflockalypse: The Media Goes on Apocalyptic Overdrive

By Jennifer Welsh | January 7, 2011 1:14 pm

Since Monday’s news that a few thousand birds fell from the sky on New Year’s Eve over Beebe, Arkansas, the world has gone a little crazy with talk of the “aflockalypse”: the mass bird deaths that have been documented worldwide.

Bird die-offs have been reported in not only Arkansas but also in Italy, Sweden, Louisiana, Texas, and Kentucky. Die-offs of other animals, including thousands of fish in Arkansas, Florida, New Zealand and the Chesapeake Bay have also been noted, while dead crabs washed up on UK shores.

Causes ranging from UFOs, monsters (our personal favorite), fireworks, secret military testing, poison, shifting magnetic fields, and odd weather formations have been blamed for the deaths, but researchers are saying these types of die-offs are normal. It’s simply a coincidence that a few big ones happened right around the new year–and once the global media started paying attention to wildlife mortality, we saw examples everywhere.

BoingBoing quotes Smithsonian Institution bird curator Gary Graves on the Arkansas bird die-off that got the conspiracy theory ball rolling:

He doesn’t think these bird deaths are a sign of anything nefarious–or, at least, nothing more nefarious than local people taking it upon themselves to stress out a large roost of “nuisance” birds until it flies away. There’s a head count associated with that kind of thing, he says, and it’s not particularly odd to see a few thousand birds die this way. But, with roosts numbering in the millions of birds, that’s not a large percentage lost. The only thing different in this case, he says, is that the dead birds landed on lawns, rather than in the wilderness.

Graves isn’t the only scientist saying this isn’t odd, but after the publication of various maps showing wide-scale die-offs (without any comparable maps from last year) humankind’s pattern-recognition abilities have gone a little overboard. Many are assuming that the die-offs must be related (BoingBoing says it’s a little like reading about homicides in different states and assuming that a serial killer is on the loose), and much of the coverage isn’t helping. It will take weeks before conclusive tests on the animals can explain their deaths, and in that time some media outlets are spewing any theory they hear.

So let’s give thanks for responsible news organizations who have countered the stupidity and paranoia. National Geographic talked to ornithologist Karen Rowe of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, who explained her theory of how the red-winged black birds died in Beebe:

“Right before they began to fall, it appears that really loud booms from professional-grade firework–10 to 12 of them, a few seconds apart–were reported in the general vicinity of a roost of the birds, flushing them out,” Rowe said. “There were other, legal fireworks set off at the same time that might have then forced the birds to fly lower than they normally do, below treetop level, and [these] birds have very poor night vision and do not typically fly at night.”

Rowe thinks that the birds, flying blind, crashed into houses and trees, and died of blunt force trauma.

Monsters (we still love this) aren’t to blame for the other die-offs, either. The millions of juvenile spot fish that washed up on the shores of Chesapeake Bay were killed by hypothermia, scientists say, when a sudden drop in temperature made the water too cold for fish to survive. Cold water temperatures may also have done in those British crabs. The drum fish die-off in Arkansas might be due to a disease (the fact that no other species in the Arkansas river was affected makes this likely), though testing isn’t complete.

Although having paranoid bunk passed around isn’t usally great for science, some researchers optimistically suggest that there could be un upside to this: Maybe the hype will get more people thinking about the wildlife repercussions of their actions (be it enjoying fireworks or performing secret military tests or summoning monsters from hell). Rowe told National Geographic that she agrees:

“I wish I could take all this energy and attention on these deaths and direct them toward true crises in wildlife biology, to things like the white-nose syndrome in bats,” Rowe added. She does, though, see a silver lining in the sky-is-falling coverage this week. “I hope we can raise public awareness of what impact man-made structures can have on other species. How many migratory warblers do you want to kill just to get better cell phone reception?”

Related Content:
Discoblog: On New Year’s Eve, 2,000 Dead Birds Rained Down on Arkansas
Bad Astronomy: Sign of the apocalypse: blood waterfalls
The Intersection: What Should Science Organizations Say About Religion? Answer: A Lot
DISCOVER: The Day Everything Died
DISCOVER: 20 Ways the World Could End

Image: flickr / xpda

  • http://tybe.blogspot.com Leee

    So if I’m reading this post right, the answer is “monsters”?

  • Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    Good to see our readers can read between the lines. Yes. Monsters.

  • Brian Too

    Small time thinking. Clearly the success of the Republicans/Tea Partiers in the recent elections has triggered the End of Days. Expect to see plagues of locusts, rivers running red, and the 4 horsemen of the apocalypse (possibly running at Belmont–get your bets in!).

  • http://georgebutel.tripod.com George A Butel

    We do read about these kills in the news, but never so many in such a short time frame. Of course, once people are alerted, what might have been ignored or just back page news now gets reported to the media, and the phenomenon snowballs. It is not totally unlikely that some exaggeration could occur, either. The explanation for the first Arkansas bird kill made sense. When I walk outside at night, birds roosting in the bushes near my house take flight, despite no visibility, so surely fireworks would cause pandemonium. The issue I have is why I have not read about that before; it would have to have occurred often, but surely it could not have only now become newsworthy.

    As far as the other incidences, I’m one of those who prefer testing instead of guessing. I know, it’s more fun to speculate, but those of us who believe in science will wait for a rational explanation. And those of us who have studied statistics are probably smiling at the most probable explanation, that this is a mere statistical blip. Let’s wait for the facts, though: Just the facts, ma’am, as Sgt. Friday used to say.

    On the other hand, I was just thinking, why let a good media frenzy go to waste. Probably somewhere in China, or perhaps Dzerzhinsk, Russia, there is a factory emitting megatons of some chemical, lacking a name, let’s call it flockozine, that is horribly toxic but not that bad by itself. And, of course, we know that over there they don’t care about anyone’s air or health. Now, let’s imagine a factory elsewhere, say in India, emitting, say, megatons of hexavalent chromium or some other reactive metal into the air. Now, let’s speculate that air currents bring the two chemicals together, and, voila, the chromium catalyzes the conversion of flockozine into a supertoxic derivative that causes birds to drop out of the air.
    The mere possibility that such a thing might occur might have the beneficial effect of increasing our concern about clean air, so it might be worth spreading that idea as a “some scientists speculate that….”

  • http://QuantaUniverse.com QuantaUniverse.com

    Birds killed in 3 world nations and 3 states shows strong evidence that cosmic rays from outer space caused the birds to panic and collide into objects. Buzz saw flashes of light when cosmic rays hit his eyes, nearly making him panic during the moon landing mission. Scientists say the birds died of physical trauma and had bruises on them. Likely cosmic rays briefly increased intensity perhaps due to a recent solar wind storm or change in the magnetosphere that shields the surface from cosmic rays.

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