Opinion Brief

Arkansas blackbirds: Is 2011's animal-death scare overblown?

A spate of mass animal deaths has the internet buzzing with theories about the "Aflockalypse." But are such creature die-offs really so uncommon?

Scientists are still scrambling to explain the mysterious deaths of thousands of redwing blackbirds in Beebe, Ark., on New Year's Eve. For doomsayers, the "Aflockalypse" is a sign that the end of the world is near. Others wonder if mass deaths of birds in Beebe — and of fish in the Arkansas River 125 miles away — could be connected somehow to similar mysterious animal deaths reported recently as far away as Sweden. Are these events really so mysterious, or are people getting worked up over something that happens all the time? (Watch a local report about the latest bird deaths)

This is all media hype: "The Aflockalypse doesn't signal the end of times," says Bryan Walsh in Time. There's a perfectly logical explanation for all the mass animal deaths — a fish kill in Florida was likely due to a winter cold snap; the Beebe blackbirds "suffered internal trauma," possibly due to a sudden storm. The breathless publicity "has more to do with the media than metaphysics" — once the media moves on, the fallen blackbirds will be forgotten "just like past sensational but evanescent stories like the Ground Zero mosque or the TSA pat downs."
"Why the Aflockalypse is business as usual for biodiversity — and why that's not good"

Mass animal deaths happen all the time: The events of the past few days have been jarring, says Melissa Bell in The Washington Post, but "sudden bird deaths occur more often than one would think." As many as 1 billion birds are killed every year, "and mass deaths have been noted about 16 times in the past 20 years," according to the "PBS NewsHour." Sometimes the causes are natural, sometimes they're man-made — "fireworks scaring the birds, toxic chemicals killing the fish."
"Dead birds, dead fish, dead crabs turn up all over the world: Signs of the Aflockalypse?"

It is all a coincidence, but a spooky one: Okay, so authorities can explain every mass animal death out there, says Faranaaz Parker in the Mail and Guardian. The Beebe blackbirds slammed into each other, or into trees, after being disoriented by fireworks or thunder, maybe. And the fish in the Arkansas River were probably killed by disease. You have to admit, even if you don't buy into conspiracy theories, "the coincidence makes for an eerie New Year story."
"Of lightning probes and inexplicable bird deaths"

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