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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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