Sunday, January 9, 2011


Is the sudden flurry of recent news reports on the "aflockalypse" keeping anyone else awake at night? My eco-insomnia started on New Year's Day with a chilling story of 5,000 blackbirds falling from the Arkansas sky, and it seems like every time I turn on my TV nowadays, there's another report of mysterious mass wildlife deaths. We're barely a week into this new year, and already we've got reports of species turning up dead in Kentucky and Arkansas and Sweden, in numbers of Biblical proportions. And it's not just birds; dead fish have washed up on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, dead crabs were found littering a beach in Britain... what (or who!) is next?

So what's going on here? Is our civilization being punished once more with a series of plagues? Did the Mayans correctly predict the coming of the end of days? Or is there something to the many conspiracy theories floating around, warning of covert government operations and chemical/biological warfare testing and the like?

Even though I'm exhausted, my judgement isn't clouded enough to buy into any of these crazy conspiracy theories, and I suspect that the day after the Mayans say the Earth will end will be remarkably similar to January 1st, 2000 (judgement day for Y2K); surprisingly uneventful despite all the hype. Nor do I entirely believe the reports that are telling us not to worry because scientists have decided that the blackbirds in Arkansas were literally scared to death by New Year's Eve fireworks the night before. I am worried, and I don't think the real answer is as simple as the (sometimes conflicting) news reports would lead us to believe!

I resolved not to spend another sleepless night speculating about the disturbing events of recent days, but to instead try and find a more logical explanation. So I turned on the Internet, set my common sense filter to "high", and started searching reputable biological and environmental sites. And here is what I found: sudden mass wildlife deaths are nothing new, nor are they uncommon. The U.S. Geological survey actually keeps a running tally of all reported die-offs here. In fact, scientists believe the species-specific deaths are more common than even this chart shows (as they think most die-offs go unreported) and that the media coverage (not the deaths themselves) is the only thing that has changed in recent days.

In reading through this chart, I see that most of the species on this list are birds, but that the suspected causes of death vary. While trauma is listed quite frequently, so are a number of various diseases. And I know (even from my limited training in biology and ecology) that toxins/pollutants and loss of habitat are other contributing factors. That in itself should give us plenty to worry about; I read somewhere else that as many as one in six species of birds are in danger of becoming extinct!

What's more, animals often succumb to disease, pollution, and other environmental factors long before humans. Some scientists suspect that these dead animals are the "canaries" in our proverbial coal mine, and it's high time we stop and listen. Just as animals can predict and detect severe weather and instinctively know when to take cover, many human diseases start in wildlife populations (bird flu, swine flu... these aren't just cute names!). If we want to stop their problems from becoming our problems down the road, we need to work to protect the environment we all share; humans are not immune!

The beauty of biodiversity is that every creature plays a vital role. We may not know what purpose each species serves in relation to our own existence, but we don't want to find out after they're gone... Sweet dreams!

No comments: