Bird expert: Don't worry too much about the Deadbirdpocalypse


I've been holding back on writing anything here about the spate of reports concerning mass bird die-offs in the United States and around the world. Frankly, this story reeks, to me, of the sort of "unexplained phenomenon" that later turns out—with much less fanfare—to have an extremely mundane explanation. It's making headlines now, but I would be surprised if this is important to anyone within a few months (except a few conspiracy theorists, and the publishers of books about ostensibly unexplained phenomena).

Smithsonian Institution bird curator Gary Graves apparently has a similar perspective. 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.

But what about multiple bird kills happening in various locations? According to Graves, this is one of those times where the human brain's penchant for pattern-finding has gone a little haywire. Mass bird deaths aren't uncommon. There's a lot of reasons why they happen. Once we're primed to pay attention, we start to see them everywhere. But it doesn't mean those incidents are connected—any more than a double homicide in Arkansas is likely to be connected to a double homicide that happens the same week in Louisiana. We could be seeing a pattern, sure. But the chances aren't real high. Remember the large fish kill that happened in Louisiana last summer? Everybody speculated the oil spill was to blame. In reality, it was a natural occurrence, caused by fish getting trapped in low-oxygen tidal pools.

And, honestly, looking at the reported cases, I'm not sure I even see much of a pattern, at all. Let me explain ...

If you look at the Google map Xeni posted earlier today, you'll see that most of the mass animal deaths marked aren't blackbirds. They aren't even mostly birds*. Here are the bird deaths marked:

&bull:Texas, number of birds not given—just "a large number": Texas Park and Wildlife officials say there are always dead birds on this particular bridge, probably because they get spooked by predators and then fly, in a group, into the path of cars.
&bull:Sweden, 50 to 100 jackdaws: No known cause, but experts think the birds were probably weak from overwintering, and, after being startled by fireworks, flew into traffic. Remember, this is 50 or 100 birds out of a flock that would probably have numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

Kentucky, "dozens" of dead birds: In this case, nobody saw the dead birds except the woman whose yard they landed in. She cleaned them up and, by her own admission, thought nothing of them until reports about the Arkansas die off scared her.

Then, you have the widely reported cases—5000+ in Arkansas and 500+ in Louisiana. And that's it.

The birds aren't all the same species. Other than the Arkansas case, they aren't dying very high numbers, relative to the likely size of the flocks they came from—and Gary Graves isn't even especially concerned about the size of the Arkansas die-off. One of the cases isn't new, but rather something that happens regularly in the place it was reported. Another was pretty much just anecdotal. This doesn't scare me. And it shouldn't scare you.

Have there been incidents where pollution, manufacturing, warfare, or some other scary human activity has caused a mass die-off of animals? Sure. But just because that has happened, it doesn't mean it's any more likely to be happening now. Or any more unlikely, for that matter. This is what I was talking about a couple of days ago with meta-cognition. You can't just look at what's happened before, compare it to current events, and say, "This MUST be it!"

You have to look at the specific situation. And, in this case, once I'd seen the details, and once I'd read a little about the behavior and size of bird flocks, this stories no longer seemed weird, and they no longer seemed linked. I could be wrong. And you're welcome to be smug if it turns out that I am wrong. But I really don't think we have a budding catastrophe, of any sort, on our hands.

Here's what I've learned from a childhood spent reading Time/Life books about "unexplainable" phenomena: A mystery that's only mysterious if you ignore the details isn't much of a mystery.

*We can get into fish kills some other time. The birds are being played as a big deal right now, so I wanted to address that alone.

Image: Some rights reserved by irrational_cat.


    1. Well, this is what happens when I let it stew for a couple of days. Tuesday, I was all, “Oh, shit just got real!” The key is to step away from the computer. ;)

  1. I’m worried about an Undeadzombirdocalypse. If that happens, will there be enough turtles to go around?

  2. I cannot say what happened, although I was born and grew up in a mountain area, almost a wild one. But I can bet that in a very short time Hollywood will launch a movie about this subject. I’m not surprised if they already work on it…

  3. Everyone should be relieved now that Kirk Cameron weighed in on Anderson Cooper’s show.

    1. No problem. My check is in the mail, right? The damn hippies with the climate change conspiracy have never paid their invoice, and I won’t get burned again.

  4. thanks for the details. my heart don’t hurt so much now. but every time i look outside i wonder what mysterious event announces the tree falling in the forest. must go feed those mysteriously living birds now.

  5. I used to work for a state environmental agency. Some batch of some kind of animal died off in some kind of numbers every week. It was nearly always natural and easily explained.

    It is exactly our ability-turned-need to find patterns in everything that is making this into a news event. Soon there will be conspiracy theories about it. Then it will be Obama’s fault.

  6. I wouldn’t have paid much attention to this if it weren’t for the fact that the Brewer’s Blackbirds here are going batshit crazy. I actually went outside the other day to see why it sounded like someone had opened a turkey farm next door. There were hundreds of them flocking and gobbling in a way that I’ve never observed in several decades of birdwatching.

  7. Just for the record, would you mind posting that it is NOT the end of days. Pattern finding penchant is a fascinating evolutionary stutter, just like fat and sugar eating…that’s why we eat donuts when doing sudoku…..

  8. Back in high school in suburbia- I told a goth dude that he reminded me of a crow. (Lame, I know.) And then a crow dropped dead onto my mom’s front lawn a few weeks later, and the crow-dude was too freaked out to date me, because he thought it was an ‘omen’ of something. Nevermind science and the fact that the West Nile virus had arrived.

  9. Charles Fort gathered and recorded mass animal dieoffs (including birds) in a number of his books. I don’t think even the fortean types are terribly impressed with the numbers here. We aren’t exactly talking rains of butter (Scotland, 1782) or highly visible wars between crucifix-shaped UFOs (the Germanies, during the protestant reformation) here.

    1. “…crucifix-shaped UFOs…”

      Isn’t that what airplanes would look like… to people previously ignorant of airplanes? Flying crosses?

  10. I agree that a scientific approach should be taken before leaping to conclusions. Just because you haven’t seen an object in the sky behave like that before doesn’t mean that a race of aliens from an interstellar civilisation have come to wipe out humanity.

    However, a recent mass bird death somewhat like that described here occurred in Albany a town on the south coast some years ago. After much government denial it eventuated that the animals were loaded with lead which had come from containers of lead carbonate being transported to the port for shipping. High winds had made the material airborne and it had propagated through the food chain to the native birds which showed a high sensitivity to the heavy metal.

  11. “Deadbirdpocalypse” may be the band name, but “Don’t worry too much about the…” must be the Greatest Hits album title.

  12. Haven’t seen this mentioned yet, but in at least a couple of cases the bird deaths were caused by a combination of New Year’s eve revelry sending them into flight (guns, fireworks, etc.) and the fact that they can’t see well at night. The cause of death was shown to be blunt force trauma (from flying into things unseen). This was on NPR a couple days back.

  13. I’ve just figured all of this out. A group of people are traveling around the planet playing real-life Angry Birds. It’s just a matter of time before the slingshot and the collapsed shoddy structures containing dead pigs are revealed.

  14. Sorry folks, I am still not feeling good about all the possible logical and statistical arguments for why this recent bird (and possibly fish) kill should not be disturbing.

    I grew up in science, I’m usually the one saying wait! Understand our information science, understand history and statistics. Usually, but not this time.

    Slam me all you want to, but science goes only so far as the facts and data available. And the open mindedness of the observers.

    I’d feel better if we the public had immediate access to what aircraft was where at the time, or what gov/mil/sci experiments were in progress at the time. I know I know. I don’t want to spark the paranoia irrational response either.

    But I don’t feel that this situation is good or normal. I would wait a few months, keep an eye on this and keep looking for information before assuming either good or bad about these recent issues. I would continue asking for more information.

    Sorry, your voices of reason are quite reflective of my usual voice, but this time, I am a bit worried.

  15. Pick one:

    1. The Judeo-Xian god is a vengeful god and someone pooped on his Caddy.
    2. iT’s tEh EnDTimEs aNd we’Re aLL GOnNa diE.
    3. It’s a slow news cycle and the US Congress was out of session.

    Happens every summer too. It’s usually shark attacks but this year we got the “Victory Mosque being built at Ground Zero, oh noes!”.

    1. I’m gonna pick #2, and then I’m gonna be smug as hell (turns to Maggie) when 99.999% of Earth’s species go extinct over night.

      Then I’m gonna pack up and head to the hills before the zombies come for me.

      iT’s tEh EnDTimEs aNd we’Re aLL GOnNa diE!!!

  16. Since the beginning of time, humans have always shaken sticks at the sky, at the big ball of fire, cowered at and made up ridiculous ‘explanations’ for things they didn’t understand. Always jumping to conclusions.

    Humans never change. Some isolated occurrences of birds falling from the sky and we think it’s the ‘apocalypse’. See?

    If the end of the world were coming, we’d know. There’d be no weird ‘perceiving’ of things. We’d know.

  17. It’s a lot more fun to think about conspiracy theories so I’m going to keep doing that. There’s a lot of cool ideas that can make shit like this happen!

  18. “I’ve been holding back on writing anything here about the spate of reports concerning mass bird die-offs in the United States and around the world. Frankly, this story reeks, to me, of the sort of “unexplained phenomenon” that later turns out—with much less fanfare—to have an extremely mundane explanation”

    This certainly brightens my opinion on you and boingboing considerably. For the last year or so it’s been disappointing to read sensationalist posts from this site which were clearly written to drive traffic, with little content and written in an alarming tone in an effort to drive comment volume up. It’s good to see BoingBoing is finally turning the corner, and that you’re leading the way on this :) Here’s to a better, more successful BoingBoing in 2011 :)

  19. This comes to mind, from January of 2009:

    “Hundreds of birds that dropped dead on Somerset County cars, porches and snow-covered lawns, alarming residents over the weekend, were all of a rather foul breed of fowl–the notorious European starling, which the United States Department of Agriculture killed on purpose…. Now, the USDA is acknowledging making a few mistakes of its own by not more fully warning people around a Princeton Township farm, where it applied a pesticide on Friday to kill 3,000 to 5,000 starlings that have been plaguing a livestock farmer.

    “It was raining dead birds,” said Franklin Township Mayor Brian Levine….

  20. I find these die offs interesting and also think they are likely not unusual. I don’t see why these two items must be mutually exclusive, that it’s only interesting if its abnormal.

    I’d be interested in seeing figures and patterns and potential spikes over time and also a break down of how many each year are due to human interventions on habitat (of any kind at all) which I do believe would still provide a very interesting picture on our influcence on the environment in which we live with other species.

    If they are cyclical events, that does not make them not newsworthy. It simply makes the context in which they are reported important. The weather is cyclical as well, but for some reason we watch it pretty closely. Variations over time (increases, decreases) are telling of things to come and patterns can indicated even if humans are having a “mundane” impact on species die-offs.

    I personally don’t mind that the conspiracy hounds are compiling all of these. They possess a certain obsessive nature that can pull in a lot of data in one go. The rest of us can then dispatch with the hyperbole, analyze the information and see what is happening. Just because there’s not a conspiracy, that doesn’t rule out the general human tendency to take a giant crap on their habitat and ruin it for themselves and the other creatures that inhabit it. Time and analysis will tell to what extent. Unfortunately it will be some point too late once we know.

  21. At the University of North Texas, circa 1997-2000, I witness the annual thrwarting of the Starling migration. In fact, when I coaxed my mom to come for a visit there were two guys fiddling with what looked like a flare gun underneath a giant tree filled with at least a thousand birds. They launched something into the tree, which exploded with a huge pop, and the birds took flight, sans about two dozen of them that fell out of the tree from an instant death of shock. The fleeing birds were pooping, and it sounded like rain all around me; an instant later I got a glob on the cheek. Meanwhile, the assistant grabbed the dead birds and shoved them in a bag. UNT made a policy of trying to keep the millions of migrating Starlings from taking an evening roost around the campus, as their crap literally covered cars, benches, artwork, and people. When I first saw this story, that is exactly what came to mind.

  22. This is a refreshing article. I do NOT believe in the biblical end times prophesies, I do however tend to get sucked into the mass hysteria that occurs when something like this happens. Avian flu make me a nervous wreck. I saw four or five dead hawks on the side of the highway today and I have to tell you, my heart skipped a beat every time I saw one. I should tell you that hawks are birds that notoriously feast on dead animals on the side of the road, and I drive a two hour highway in Kansas that is nothing but open plains, so birds often get hit because there is just such a large number. Not to mention a wind advisory today (40 mph gusts.) So, is there any cause for concern or am at the point that I could read into just about anything? I need some positive words!

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