Everyone panic. Or not.

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A few weeks ago, I moved my desk next to an upstairs window overlooking a Bradford pear tree. For the past 3 weeks, when I sat at the desk during the day, periodically, a flock of about 50 starlings would swoop in and land on the tree,  devouring the shriveled fruits up like grapes. Then, in a whoosh, they would be off. Sometimes I would hear them clamor on the roof. This has happened no less than a dozen times. They seemed hungry. 

On my way home from work over the past month, I noticed crows arcing across the sky across the interstate from as far as I can see from left to right. This happened for several consecutive days in the same place.

This is the behavior of birds. It seems remarkable but not too unusual.

On December 26, we were on the beach in South Carolina near Charleston. It was snowing. There were starfish embedded in the sand. The south was experiencing record cold. It happens. I felt bad for the alligators in the swamps.

Suddenly, we experience such a Fortean start to 2011!  A massive and suspicious bird die-off in Arkansas on New Years Eve triggers a wave of mystery, speculation and imaginative explanations fed by more accounts of animal mortality events.  The current media sensation of reporting mass mortality events is very interesting in many ways. Shall we count the ways? Yes, we shall, because it’s fun – fun like outrageous speculation about the end of the world! (Well, if you have a hot-air filled balloon of speculative belief about these things, you won’t think this is fun.)

1. Facts are hard to come by

It began with “More than 1000 birds fall dead in Arkansas”. Within days, the reports are up to 5000 birds. It’s been difficult to follow the changing numbers and expert opinions being offered. I wonder if one report just pulls the high value in the range of a previous report. Most people get their info from reporters, not the original sources. Many others rely on what they are told by friends or family and take that as fact. The “facts” quickly grow into tall tales where the fun is in the telling. Some “facts” are not so at all but become more and more real, in a cultural sense, in the retelling.

2. Slow news period. Why not start the year off with a bang?

This story exploded in the first week of the new year. It was EVERYWHERE. (I went to thesaurus.com to look up a word and there was the red-winged blackbird story at the top of the page!) Unexplained mass death is a frightening story. It doesn’t seem natural, it’s not something we see everyday or even hear about often.  Finding the ground littered with bird bodies or the shoreline covered with carcasses is disturbing and makes for good visuals. We fear for our own safety. Could what killed them harm me? People want to keep tuning in to see if there are any answers or updates. When the answers trickle in, they aren’t always satisfying…

3. Look for mystery and ye shall find

People suddenly became aware of dead animals, especially multiple deaths. A Kentucky woman spots multiple birds (same red-winged blackbirds) dead around her house, fish and seabirds die in New Zealand, starfish and jellyfish wash up on the South Carolina shores, manatees are found dead with no wounds in Florida, 70 dead bats are discovered dead in Arizona. The apparent cause for all these deaths was reported as weather related. The southern US has experienced record cold in the past few weeks. Wildlife succumbed to the cold. The quoted experts were not that concerned. Birds die from winter stress. Food sources may be scarce, the animals weak and susceptible. Even suspicious animal deaths come to light, grouped with the stories of the mass natural deaths.

So, now all animal deaths show up in the news. It is not unlike a shark attack. If a shark attack occurs near a populated area, especially in the summer, suddenly sharks are spotted everywhere. We seek out information of a particular type and discover more of it.  That is not surprising. We engage our selective memory for events and get a clustering effect in time, bombarded with stories of similar nature. But are they really similar?

4. False correlation of events (i.e. It’s all related)

Google has a map of many of the so-called anomalous mass animal deaths.  It’s here we notice that the causes of these mass die-offs are not all related in space and time. There are species clusters, not a sudden mortality of everything in the area. People aren’t affected. A trigger for these correlation of events in the public mind was the fish kill that occurred just after the bird incident and also in Arkansas. With the bird deaths fresh in everyone’s mind, along comes another event that could be weaved into a narrative and connections made in our heads without much effort. It unfolded by surprise, like that game where each person adds a little to the story and the next person has to tie it in, the media was adding bits from around the world.

Alex Jones’ Prison Planet blog was a hotbed of activity. They got busy gathering up any possible strange idea, making it sound even more horrific with unsupported claims,  and tying it to the bird deaths. I admire their imagination and zeal, that’s about all the good you can say about that. With their paranoia mongering, and suggestions that things are way worse than you are led to believe, their faithful believers are left sorely misinformed and unduly frightened – not a healthy condition for a democratic society. Imagination can take us to dark places.

5. Let’s speculate on cause

The cause of death of the blackbirds in Arkansas is being explained as disorientation exacerbated by fireworks. The red-winged blackbirds roost at night en masse. Yet, this article reports that locals heard booms, possibly from fireworks before the birds fell. I’m not sure what to do with that information. It’s incomplete.

There is also the possibility that the birds were disturbed by strong weather that passed through the area. Once in flight, they ran into object and each other in the dark. Upon examination, the birds were found to have exhibited blunt force trauma. It took NO time at all for the extreme explanations to crop up. People were not buying this fireworks idea. Birds are expert flyers! Why weren’t there bird deaths all over the place that night? Then, when the other stories immediately came to light, such as the massive fish death also in Arkansas and millions of fish dead in the Chesapeake Bay area http://www.baltimoresun.com/features/green/bs-gr-fish-kill-bay-20110104,0,5624655.story , people wondered how to explain the other animal deaths? It’s clear that weather events were the cause of many wildlife deaths. And, as described, this was not unprecedented, it has happened in the past.

I liked this interesting twist where weather radar may have captured the huge flock of blackbirds in Arkansas.  But, based on comments that appeared on the web in response to the news stories, readers were unwilling to accept mundane, simplistic explanations. Instead of considering that some unusual combination of conditions were causing these events, they jumped right to the sensational.

6. Discard the normal explanations because the supernormal is WAY more fun

This “animals dying all over the place” meme has gone way out of control. I’m having a very hard time keeping up with opinions that went from conspiratorial to batshit insane in very short order.

Here we go…

The first alternate explanation I noted in the news stories and comments was poisoning. Poison was related to the BP oil spill. Or, the government injected gas into the ground. Apparently the dead US Air Force official whose body was recently discovered in the landfill knew about it. It was tied to Iraq. It was secret government testing of eco-weapons.

From the more religiously inclined, these die-off are OBVIOUSLY plagues from the Bible. It is the End Times. The world really is going to end on May 11, 2011.  It’s the apocalypse, I mean aflockalypse!

More down to earth but also cause for panic, possibly the New Madrid fault is becoming active again. The animals are experiencing the early effects of the stress buildup. A 7 or 8 or maybe 9 magnitude quake is coming soon. Everyone panic!

Gee, its fun to talk about these wild scenarios. The problem is, there is not a shred of evidence that any of them are true. Commentators are citing other conspiracy theorists or unverified sources, reading between the lines and adding embellishments, linking to past dubious allegations against governmental agencies or referencing concocted reports from potentially fraudulent sources. This is not the way to find answers, it’s just a way to trump up fear and panic.

Frankly, these events are weird but not unheard of. After an event in Louisiana where an estimated 500 red-winged blackbirds fell dead,  a  “search of USGS [US Geological Survey biology] records shows there have been 16 events in the past 30 years involving blackbirds where at least 1,000 of the birds have died seemingly all at once. “These large events do take place,” [said a USGS spokeman] “It’s not terribly unusual.” The USGS tracks these events (for land and air critters, not fish). Here is actually a “Don’t Panic!” story that explains this.

On Jan 4, hundreds of fish are found dead on New Zealand beaches.  The explanation given by an expert was they were starving because of weather conditions or it was an illegal dump of fish or broken net, but an eyewitness didn’t believe this. It seemed too boring an explanation to explain the dramatic sight he witnessed. While, the witness didn’t explain why he thought that cause was wrong, he was CERTAIN that something more deliberate was going on. One can be certain with no evidence if belief is more important than verifiable data. That way of thinking leads you down a blind path.

We want immediate simple answers to unnerving strange situations. But figuring out a puzzle takes time and careful collection of measurements to create data points which must be analyzed. Hypotheses must be tested and ruled out. And, worst of all, we might never get a definitive answer. That could be hard to accept for some so they tie on some emotionally satisfying answer that works for them.

I get angry when off-balance commentators spout nonsensical explanations but that is what the public eats up. I’m not sure why many folks prefer to live in fear and panic instead of telling themselves to calm down and take a rational look. I’m pretty sure that it’s because we humans get a hell of a lot of our information from others, not from doing the work ourselves. Like I said, I was quickly overwhelmed just trying to get a handle on these stories that were coming in fast and furious from all over the world. How do you know what’s true?

Strange days, indeed.

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21 thoughts on “Everyone panic. Or not.

  1. Joseph G. Mitzen

    I’ll never forget being chastised by one commenter on a Cryptomundo article for “always jumping to the most likely conclusion first”. :-) :-) :-) Even the Bigfoot true believers took that commenter to task and had to explain to her how science worked, Occam’s razor, etc.

  2. JDtk

    It’s a well written article, but I feel it’s flawed. Yes, I have no prior experience with the avian science, meteorology, oceanic temperature, etc. However after spending countless hours on youtube, googling web articles from obscure news pages to CNN and Fox, reading ocean temperatures, looking at the usgs.gov for fault activity.

    Aside from some of the obviously flawed perspectives of the conspiracy theorists there is one fact that stands out the most. I believe it was a CNN article where they said that on average there are a reported 163 cases of mass animal deaths. If you take that number and divide it by 12 you get 13.33_ So 13-14 reports in a month, right? Now if you look at the death map, and read articles, etc there is a little over 30 reported cases as of right now, in the past 2ish weeks.

    That’s the reason I would have to argue it’s not common occurrence. Also another theory you forgot to mention that holds some truth. There is shifting in the magnetic north pole. Birds, fish and other animals use this as a mental GPS. If there was a shift it’s possible it could cause confusion. Not saying it’s the best explanation, but it’s better than fireworks.

    Also here is a link to the miami herald with that story http://www.miamiherald.com/2011/01/07/2005437/shift-in-magnetic-north-requires.html

    • idoubtit

      JDtk: Thanks for your comments. I’m not saying that the current events are not unusual. I’m saying, instead, that they aren’t unprecedented or a signal of some pending catastrophe. There is no doubt that this past month’s cold temperatures in the UK and the southern US have had an effect. It is clear from the Chesapeake fish kill and manatee deaths that the cold got to them. But, it happens and that is a reasonable explanation. I don’t see any connection to the shifting of the pole. The north pole wanders all the time and someday the earth’s polarity will flip as it has in the past. I have no idea what will happen then but there hasn’t been mass extinctions found to be associated with that event (which happened countless times over the earth’s history). I would still say that the incidence of _reporting_ that you mentioned is the key here. With the advent of the internet, we can easily know what’s going on all over the world and related it to what we see at home. Thus, we see the new thing all over the place, even if it’s only a few poor birds that froze and ended up in our driveway.

  3. Kasper Hauser

    Look, I don’t know who it is, but whoever it is that has the Israelites in bondage?

    You need to let them go….right now!

  4. jack

    I’m glad that you took a critical eye to the unfounded hyperbole that some people get their kicks out of, but I also have to add a bit of a warning about false rationalism. I don’t see it with the article above, you were just looking at the whole story critically, but certain people immediately cling to the mundane explanation, even if all the evidence shows it to be less likely then something else. They’ll do this largely to avoid the discomfort of considering a possibility outside their frame of reference, even if evidence shows something odd to really be going on.
    I once read a professional debunkers attempt to play down a very large rash of cattle mutilations in Utah, in which the guy’s whole argument rested on the assumption that the farmers (who’d lived their whole lives in the country) were uneducated hicks and thus unable to recognize wounds caused by animals; false rationalism.

    • idoubtit

      Jack: Not disagreeing with you here because that surely happens. What you are describing is a bias no different than believers on the other side of the coin and just as wrong. However, I’m pretty aware of that bias and am apt to change my mind if evidence comes along that sways me to the other side. That said, I’ll still opt for the non-paranormal explanations over the paranormal ones for many and various reasons. Jumping to paranormal conclusions is not the way to go. Thanks for your comment.

  5. jack

    Idoubtit, As long as you’re willing to change your views based on genuine evidence, even if odd and unlikely in its implications, then there is no problem with your skepticism. And I agree, jumping to the paranormal conclusion first, or too fast is no way to go at all. It’s a bad idea.

  6. JDtk

    I think the number of reports is what’s weird. Also, in a bunch of interviews they said that most die offs happen in obscure areas. All of these have been happening in populated regions. That aside, youtube has been around for almost ten years, mass search engines for twenty, social networking sites for ten + years. I think saying that it’s just being reported more because we are a more interconnected world is an answer that’s only half true.

    We haven’t had much time outside of these populated areas to find more mass deaths. Yeah some explanations are weird, but so are the ones that the media is throwing out. It should have happened before in the same numbers in relatively populated areas that have witnessed cold weather snaps and fireworks before, but it hasn’t. I don’t think there is an explanation for it. I also think everyone’s minds should be clear and just keep watching for the next few weeks before settling with any of the conclusions brought up.

  7. JDtk

    I hope someone finds this worthwhile.

    I wrote it in response to someone saying that mass animal deaths occur all the time.

    I researched how often this happens as well. Most websites say 163 cases a year or 90 in *8, EIGHT* months…. not 6. Christ, articles keep changing numbers. Aside from that break it down. 90 in eight months is 11.25 reports a month, we’ve had 30+ in two weeks let alone 10+ in the US in two weeks. 163 a year… okay so 163 divided by 12 is 13.58. so 13-14 a month. we’ve had 30+ in two weeks. They said that 90 is under calculated so double that number 180 a year. that’s 15 in a month…. Soooooo my conclusion is that it’s not adding up. even 90 in six months is 15 a month.

    Also, fireworks startling birds is not going to cause 3000 to crash at the same time in the same area. Fireworks have never caused mass amounts of birds to fall dead in the insane amount of time fireworks have been around. People said that it was one bird leading a flock. They have poor night sight and startled. if startled They fly off randomly and how could the see the lead bird?. Ever see a crow cannon? They do NOT fly off in flocks.

    Several reports have stated that the reason 90 is so low is because they happen in underpopulated areas or out in the middle of nowhere. A lot of these reports are coming in from populated towns and roadways which would make these events uncommon. So how many do you think we’re missing in other areas of the world? Are the 30+ reported under calculated as well?

    We’ve had mass media for years now. Youtube was created in 05, chat rooms and IRC came about in the early 90 with it getting popular in the next few years, Social networking sites in the mid to late 90′s with myspace in 02, facebook in 04, and the internet itself was used since the 60′s becoming commercially available in 1992 with a service provider called delphi. It was however being used before this

    maybe it’s not the end of the world, a government plot, or HAARP, or aliens. Denying something odd is ignorant of facts.

  8. Joseph G. Mitzen

    “Also, fireworks startling birds is not going to cause 3000 to crash at the same time in the same area. Fireworks have never caused mass amounts of birds to fall dead in the insane amount of time fireworks have been around.”

    JDtk, this is an assertion, not a statement of fact. You (or I) don’t know if fireworks have ever led to bird deaths at any period since the Chinese invented them in the 12th century. Also, just because something hasn’t happened before, doesn’t make an explanation any less rational. Wasn’t it the character Sherlock Holmes who said that when all else has been eliminated, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the solution? They’ve eliminated poisons and disease, which leaves the fireworks. It’s plausible, there’s no evidence against it, some for it and there’s no evidence for any other theory, so that seems to be the one to go with barring any other evidence that turns up.

    “We’ve had mass media for years now….” Yes, but no one was caring about mass bird deaths. It’s one of those “Quick! Don’t think about polar bears!” things. Once the story enters the public sphere of attention, our ever-more-commercialized (news) media is off in search of a similar story to boost ratings. In the 80′s in America politicians began talking about the drug problem and evil drug lords coming to get us. Stories on these subjects spiked in the news media. The public ranked it near the top in ratings of the country’s problems. The reality? Drug use was DECLINING. It was the politician/media fueled PERCEPTION of a drug problem that caused people to imagine it was much worse than it was. Later, the number of stories about these things plunged and fell off the list of the public’s top concerns. The reality? Drug use was RISING. See? With the “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality that has been taking over news, it’s not the number of incidents, it’s how often those incidents are discussed in the media that create people’s perception of the problem. People are LOOKING for these stories now, and they’re running them and they’re getting (inter)national attention when they never would have before because it’s getting ratings. Tablet PCs existed well before the iPad, but now that the iPad is a hit, everyone’s jumping in with their own version. Same phenomenon.

    “Denying something odd is ignorant of facts.” Pointing out that a coin coming up heads 5 times in a row is a completely possible and eventually expected occurrance doesn’t mean you’re denying something odd or ignorant of facts. There’s nothing observed that’s really unusual here. Animals die, and there’s nothing so far that indicates they died from an unusual cause, or that anything links any of these events – time, location, species, cause, etc. Bad weather increases, a slightly higher incidence of mass die-offs is observed… again, nothing to suggest anything outside what one would expect, so nothing is unusual barring further evidence.

  9. JDtk

    If you go to the USGS website and look at the deaths they are reporting it sounds worse than it is. This is from their website and look for yourself. Most of the reports made are of 10-100 birds. Only about one or two each quarter hit 1,000 or more

    http://www.nwhc.usgs.gov/publications/quarterly_reports/

    2010
    44 reports in the first 3 months
    22 reports in second 3 months

    2009
    52 reports in the first 3 months – some deaths as low as 4 dead beavers, 8 dead mallards, 3 bats
    33 reports in second 3 months- some deaths as low as 4 frogs, 4 bog turtles, 5 common grackle
    52 reports in third 3 months- some as low as 7 morning dove & unidentified sparrow, 6 american crow
    23 reports in final 3 months – some as low as 7 tree duck, 4 black-backed gull & herring gull, 8 canada goose

    2008
    58 reports in first 3 months – 5 american crow, 11 fish crow, 5 lesser snow goose, 6 mallards
    44 reports in second 3 months – 7 barn swallow, 8 californian red-legged frog, 11 pine skin
    59 reports in third 3 months – 10 little brown bat, 5 american white pelican, 6 morning dove
    33 reports in final 3 months – 12 bull frog, 15 mallard & american widgen, 12 canada goose

    On top of the low numbers for some of them there are a number of reports in unpopulated areas or wildelife preserves.

  10. In early January 2009, there was a frenzy over the the “UFO” that damaged a windmill in the UK. It blew up into an international story. The hook was the damaged windmill, and the description by one witness that the UFO had tentacles like a jellyfish.

    In early January 2008, there was a UFO flap over Stephensville, TX. These are not that unusual, but the timing, and the proximity of Bush’s Crawford Ranch, catapulted the story to a monster hit on cable tv and the internet.

    In early January 2007, the media had a frenzy over the O’Hare UFO report. It didn’t occur at that time, happening a month earlier, but it hit the press at that time. A multiple eyewitness sighting of a UFO at an airport is pretty impressive, though it is telling that no photos ever emerged.

    This is the 2011 “weird news frenzy of the beginning” of the year. It’s just like the fact-based but tabloid overblown stories that prosper in the former dead season of the summer, particularly August. Gary Condit/Chandra Levy. The summer of the shark. West Nile Virus. And so on. Ironically, the UFO itself got its start as such a summer silly story, but it never went away. These summer stories still happen from time to time, like the 2008 Bigfoot in the freezer hoax that CNN hyped up.

  11. terry the censor

    JDtk, you have a small problem with statistics. Okay, maybe a huge one.

    > on average there are a reported 163 cases of mass animal deaths

    On average. Not 163 cases EXACTLY, EVERY year, but on average over several years. Ask yourself, what is the highest number in that average?

    > If you take that number and divide it by 12 you get 13.33_ So 13-14 reports in a month, right?

    Again, that is on average. You are assuming a uniform distribution of mass deaths — with no warrant whatsoever. And you are comparing that yearly average with less than two weeks of incidents! Think on this: what if winter months, owing to cold weather and relative lack of food, produce most (if not all) the annual mass deaths? What if six cold months have 25 mass deaths each and six warm months have one or two mass deaths a month?

    I’m glad you later sought out data longer than two weeks, and were skeptical of press reports on such data, but you have a huge problem with statistics — a perversely literal interpretation of stats.

    Keep digging.

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