Unless you’ve been living beneath a rock for the past month or so, you couldn’t have missed the bizarre reports of birds falling from the sky and dead fish littering shores in various parts of the world, mainly in the US, but also in Canada, Sweden, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Japan, and other areas.
This interactive Google map contains 30 reports, with the earliest reports starting around the last week of December. At the time of this writing, the map had not been updated since January 5, which means there were about 30 or so reported mass die-offs worldwide within a span of about just over one week.
I make this point because authorities have been quick to reassure us all that mass die offs are “normal,” pointing out the fact that there are scores of mass deaths of various species each and every year.
While this is true, after spending some time reviewing the data on previous mass die-offs, I can’t help but scratch my head and wonder why, if this is normal, the data doesn’t support their current conclusions.
In fact, after looking at the US data for 2010 and 2009, I don’t see how current events fit comfortably within the “normal” parameters.
Personally, I believe these birds and fish are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, and whatever is going on, whether natural or induced by man, they appear to be an indication of something or some things going awry.
Are Mass Die-Offs of Animals Normal?
Well, yes and no.
It’s easy to see how the authorities can so easily dismiss these events pointing to the fact that they’ve got scores of reports of similar events each and every month of the year.
But not so fast.
If you’re going to hinge your conclusions on the data available, then look at that data and see if there are similar patterns ASIDE FROM the fact that animals “can and do die en masse” at times, which they do. I asked myself three questions, and I’ll review each of them below.
The first question is, how common is it for hundreds or even thousands of birds to fall from the sky and not be found to have died from either poisoning or some form of viral or bacterial infection?
The answer to that is this: In the past two years that has never happened, based on the data from the USGS National Wildlife Health Center.
Three thousand Purple Gallinule and American Coots died between February and April of last year—from Avian cholera. Not from some mysterious mid-air collision with nothing, causing them to plummet to their deaths.
Six hundred snow geese also perished between February and March last year, due to lead poisoning. Some 200 robins, starlings and doves also died from suspected toxicosis.
Mass bird starvations have also occurred, but that’s clearly not what we’re looking at presently.
Going through the USGS’ lists of each quarter for 2009 and 2010, looking for a pattern of what could be considered normal (at least in recent years), it seems quite clear that the die-offs that have occurred in the past few weeks are not quite as normal as they’re trying to make them out to be…
Botulism appears to be a primary culprit when it comes to mass die-offs of birds and bats, but so far, none of the current cases have been linked to either poisoning or infection.
So, although mass die-offs are indeed normal, mass die-offs without a toxic, viral or bacterial cause are NOT normal.
So, until or unless a toxic or infectious cause is ascertained, it seems remarkably irresponsible to dismiss these events off-hand as something that is “within the norm.” And then there’s the frequency of events.
Why are There So Many More Reports All of a Sudden?
That’s the second question.
Going back to that Google map, it shows a total of 15 reported events in the US within just eight days, starting with 83,000 dead fish washing up along the Arkansas River on December 29, followed by 5,000 blackbirds falling out of the sky in Beebe, Arkansas around 11.30 pm on New Year’s eve, up to January 5, which is when the map was last updated.
Compare that to the USGS records of previous events and you will find that for the first two quarters of 2010 (the last two quarters are not posted), there were a total of 45 reports for the first quarter (January through April), and a total of 29 reports for the second quarter (April through June).
That means that during the first quarter of 2010, the USGS National Wildlife Health Center received an average of about 3.5 reports of mass die-offs per week. And during the second quarter of 2010, the average was just over 2 reports per week.
The year prior, in 2009, they had a massive die-off of ducks – 1,537 of them – but again, the cause was identifiable as parasites, not flying into electrical wires or scared to death by fireworks. They also had 1,440 various birds, including geese, die in the summer of 2009 in Minnesota. But again, there was a cause: viral infections. Twenty thousand ducks died of botulism in Idaho that same summer.
But still, if you average the number of total reports turned in to the USGF each quarter of 2009, the reports averaged from 1 to 4 a week.
So once again, 15 mass deaths in one week is a bit out of the ordinary—in fact, the first week of January has between five to seven times more reports than the average week during the past year.
Is that due to increased use of technology? Are we just noticing these events because we’re more connected and news spreads faster?
Many people have proposed that as the explanation, but I’m not convinced. Didn’t people have access to smart phones and computers last year? Or the year before?
Are Animals Dying in Greater Numbers than Normal?
The third “out-of-the-proposed-norm” of animal mass-deaths is the much larger than normal number of animals dying, starting with 83,000 fish and 5,000 birds in Arkansas.
Again, going through the USGS records, these are actually extraordinarily large numbers.
Reported mass deaths are typically in the dozens for birds, and large fish deaths appear to be rather uncommon in general.
Mass deaths of sea life now include:
2 MILLION fish in the Chesapeake Bay
Between 10,000 and 20,000 gizzard shad in Lake Meredith, Texas
20 TONS of carp and red tilapia in Vietnam
100 TONS of fish (mostly sardines) in Brazil
40,000 crabs in the UK
At least in the US, the records from the USGS simply do not support the explanation that fish typically die in such great numbers.
Do some of these events have reasonable explanations?
Toxic algae bloom was found to be the culprit in the case of Lake Meredith, and the Vietnamese event was determined to be due a combination of water pollution and overcrowded fish pens, and the crabs may indeed have succumbed to cold water stress.
However, something just doesn’t feel right about shrugging all of these events off as ‘nothing out of the ordinary.’ I certainly believe they all merit thorough and rigorous investigation.
Case Solved: Birds Died from Blunt Trauma!
At first I couldn’t believe I was reading what I was reading. I thought, surely I must have misunderstood something. But no, it appears as though the official explanation to the Arkansas bird deaths is simply this: they died from blunt-force trauma. Tests for poisoning were negative. Case closed.
The official stance is that this year’s fireworks sent the birds into a never-before-heard-of panic, causing them to fly into cars, homes, and possibly straight into the ground. What this explanation ignores, however, is the fact that people started reporting the birds littering the streets around 11.30 pm, and on New Year’s Eve fireworks typically do not begin until the strike of midnight. It also ignores the fact that this does not appear to have happened before, even though the US celebrates both New Year’s and Independence Day with massive fireworks displays across the nation every year.
Perhaps an even more bizarre explanation is that of the Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana event, where about 500 red-winged blackbirds and starlings are thought to have suddenly been unable to navigate around a power line due to high winds… Personally, I believe the odds of 500 birds colliding with a power line are fairly slim.
Likewise, it seems dubious that one trucker would cause the death of nearly 100 birds in Falkoping, Sweden.
Testing has yet to identify any toxic or infectious causes to any of these bird deaths.
I certainly understand our officials’ needs to quench the fear that these events are in any way related. It could cause a panic. But quite frankly, the explanations offered are equally panic-inducing, simply because they do not appear to be based on any genuine understanding or scientific investigation.
Most Recent Events
It will be interesting to see what the explanations will be for some of the latest events, such as the January 14 mass death of fish reported in the Iranian sector of the Caspian Sea. According to the Iranian Gulistan Province’s Nature Conservation Department Deputy Head Mohsen Jafarnejad, analysis of the dead fish is underway.
The article also states that, “Scientists suggest that the causes of the recent events may be a global disaster or testing of biological weapons.”
Some 80 pigeons also died at a farm near Quebec City in Canada, the Toronto Sun reported on January 7. The landowner claims that wildlife officials told him not to speak to the media—a piece of advice he promptly ignored. “There’s something going on,” the landowner is quoted as saying. “This is not normal.”
One of the few cases that seem to have a plausible cause of death is the case of 200 dead cows found in a field in the Town of Stockton on January 15. According to the NY Daily News, the owner suspects the cows may have succumbed to IBR/BVD, an acute, contagious cattle virus. An investigation is currently underway.
Again, I want to emphasize that I do not claim to have any of the answers, but I believe that in order to get to the answers we need to ask the right questions, and based on the questions I asked myself while writing this piece, the conventional answers are insufficient.
It’s interesting to note that birds are quite vulnerable to chemical pollution and poisoning from natural toxins. If these animals are indeed the canaries, then we need to investigate these events properly and thoroughly, and not pretend it’s all business as usual. I believe the data suggests these events are not as normal as they would like us all to believe, and all of these events certainly warrant further investigation.
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