Over the last few days, there have been several reports of mass die-offs of birds, and one report of a fish die-off. These events have been linked, via suggestion but not evidence, to hail, lightning, fireworks, aircraft, aliens, each other, poison gases, and even pockets of oxygen free air. Many have suggested that there may be a cover up. What is the explanation for so many highly unlikely events happening in such a short time period?
The answer may astound you:
According to available records, close to a hundred mass die-offs of birds occur each year in the US. The recent events in Arkansas and Louisiana are being looked into by the government agency that does that, but most likely they will be found typical.
Most die-off events do not make it into the news. But, for some reason, the Arkansas die-off did, and this apparently prompted some sleepy newsroom in Louisiana to bother to report a die-off there, and that happened just after a fish die-off back in Arkansas was also reported. With these three events being discussed on the news and cycled through blogs and facebook postings, a sort of Vortex of Rhetoric formed sucking all other reports of dead birds into it, and turning out a widespread belief in a pattern: The birds were falling from the sky, all over the world (as it turned out, based on … reports), in increasing numbers, like never seen since the days when Pharaoh was getting heavily bitch-slapped by God Himself Almighty.
But about a hundred of these events occur per year, so really, having two bird die-offs in one week in the US would be average. There is no evidence that there is an increase in bird die-offs.
The ‘fact’ that there may be a cover up is, of course, going to keep this story going for a while as people start to connect the dots and add together numbers like one and one to get three. Every bird die-off will have a chemical plant, military base, fuel depot, or something within five hundred or a thousand miles, and where there are no such facilities there are always the trusty UFOs which, because they can fly, can be anywhere. I look forward to watching that circus.
Having said that, I don’t care if the bird die-offs in Arkansas and Louisiana were, in a sense, expected (statistically speaking). They are still interesting. Well, those particular die-offs may or may not be interesting but in general the phenomenon is very interesting, and begs the question: “What happens to all those birds anyway? If every pair of birds raises between three and five offspring a year … where do they all go?”
I’ve addressed this question before on a smaller scale. I had been watching a 150 or so ducklings of three different species grow to maturity up at the lake. They were not all in one place most of the time, but a dozen or so pairs of this or that duck each had some ducklings. Over time some of the adults disappeared and others formed creches, which is a very ducky thing to do and often extends across species boundaries. I never did a formal count, but every single week the number of ducklings went visibly down. By the end of the season, some 20 adults had produced some 30 or 40 young adults. Eighty percent of the cute little duckings were … gone.
So I did some research to find out where they all went. Of course, we can’t really tell. My fantasy was that they were being eaten by the monster tiger muskie that I had almost caught a couple of times but always got away (yes, I have fantasies about baby ducklings being eaten by big huge fish … I’m working on a lure). I also considered the possibility that they were being taken one or two at time by some small carnivores. There are otters, minks, ermines, and fishers in the vicinity. Of them, I guessed the minks and ermines to be the most likely to feed on baby ducks (or adults, for that matter). These ducklings lived under the watchful eye of a single great blue heron, a pair of eagles with a one year old offspring, a barred owl, a pair of kingfishers, a small murder of crows, a pair of rather defensive loons, and an itinerant cooper’s hawk. I’m not listing the animals I know to be in the region. I’m talking about the animals that live in the forest around the bay, many of whom spend considerable time staring at each other and occasionally interacting. Those things have to eat some thing, and these ducklings are … well, they are things. And probably easy to catch.
When I read up on causes of demise of ducklings, though, I found out that the most common cause of their death is probably the same thing that gets a lot of other birds: Thermal demise. They die of hypothermia during the night having not eaten enough the day before. For whatever reason, including being harassed by some carnivores, but more likely intraspecific competition for shallow weedy things or little fishy things, some of the duckling have bad luck (or bad genes?) all day long and go to their ducky beds at night having not consumed enough to keep their endothermic systems going until morning. Maybe they do that once and survive in a weakened state, and that makes it more likely to happen the next day, then they die. That one little duckling that seems to be straggling behind the others today is tomorrows detritus.
Which brings us to the next point: If 150 ducks turn to 40 in 9 weeks, where are the bodies? How come we don’t see the occasional duckling corpse splashing around in the mini-surf lapping at the shore of the bay? Perhaps that’s where the fish come in! Perhaps they sink to the bottom. But more likely (because they do float, after all) we do see them along the shore of the bay. They are just part of the flotsom, mainly consisting of bits and pieces of reed or other plants, that is accumulated by wave action along certain parts of the shoreline. The stuff you step over when you walk into the lake to swim, that gets more noticeable when the maw of the bay is in the fetch of the weather instead of the lee and everything floats to shore. Indeed, when I see extra yech building up along the shore, I know the fishing will be better than average, because it tells me the bait fish have blown into shallow water, and with them the game fish.
But I digress.
Mass bird death is probably something like that but on the level of the flock. A flock is a large number of birds often of similar age, who have spent time in roughly the same region, and thus all had the same good year or the same bad year. The flock then spends weeks in exactly the same habitat, as they are traveling together. And, they are traveling, which adds stress. They need to fly to a place with food, and although we see them as, perhaps, landing in a place with lots of food for them, there are still hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of the birds in that one spot competing for food. So, one day they land in a place with a less than ideal food supply, and some of the flock go to roost hungry. The next day, those weakened feed even more poorly. Then, there is a cold turn of weather or some other meteorological event that stresses the entire flock and that 10 percent that had done poorly for two days in a row crashes. Literally, perhaps.
Or, a disease spreads through the flock and the weakened die.
A flock is sufficiently homogeneous but at the same time possesses some variation that it may be very likely for dozens or hundreds of birds to die off at a time. And when they do that near a reporter …
It would be interesting if the end off the world was near. Well, I assume it would be interesting. But the recently reported mass deaths of thousands of birds does not signal it.