The Aflockalypse: The Latest on Bird and Fish Carnage

Arkansas birds mass animal deaths

Fact and fiction in mass animal deaths

It’s been four days since 5,000 dead birds fell from the sky on to the roofs, lawns, and streets of Beebe, Ark. Since then, we’ve heard reports of more bird deaths around the world, from Louisiana to Sweden, and tens of thousands fish washed up on the shores of the Arkansas river, as well as in New Zealand and now 2 million have been reported dead in Maryland.

We’ve been following the string of mass animal deaths, talking about end-of-days assertions, and our tendency to make connections where none exist.

But the explanations for the strange barrage of bird and fish carnage haven’t changed. Not only that, it turns out that 5,000 birds dying is actually a relatively small number. Here’s why:

As we know, the Arkansas birds, according to lab tests, died of acute physical trauma. The best explanation so far: startling noise, like fireworks, followed by blunt force as the birds flew into buildings, cell phone towers, cars and more. The range of reasons for the other deaths around the world include disease and weather systems. The Maryland fish appear to have been killed by an extreme drop in temperature.

2 million fish is shocking, but according to Reuters:

“There have been many such incidents in the past with 2,900 kills afflicting all fish species between 1984 and 2009 according to the department. The largest ever die-off was around 15 million in January, 1976.”

And here’s something that might put you at ease about the deadly blackbird affair that kicked off the panic and media coverage: according to the director of conservation at the National Audubon Society in Washington, D.C., these types of birds normally congregate in incredibly large roosts — up to 23 million birds have been reported roosting together — in the fall and winter.

When I imagine birds falling from the sky, I picture the sky outside my home, where I could point out a couple dozen at any given time. Clearly, most of us have no concept of the magnitude of these blackbird roosts.

“In that context, 5,000 birds dying is a fairly small amount,” said the director.

The other piece of information that may settle your mind: “Young birds that hatch in the spring have an approximately 75 percent chance of not reaching their first birthdays,” the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission says.

The last few days have no doubt been strange, and we can’t rule out that a man-made affect like climate change or the building of huge cell phone towers near warbler nests (yes, that seems to be part of the problem) could be at play.

But one of the main take-aways from this whole episode seems to be that birds and fish have it tough. In fact, biologist say these mass deaths are much more common than most of us ever realized.

Image: flickr

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