Meditations on mass bird deaths

By Kristen Lindquist | Feb 13, 2011
Photo by: Karl Gerstenberger A whooping crane. At the end of this past December, three endangered whooping cranes were found shot dead in Calhoun County, Georgia.

The new year began on an inauspicious note for wildlife. On New Year’s Day, several thousand red-winged blackbirds were found dead in Beebe, Ark., and then a few days later, almost 500 dead grackles and blackbirds were found dead in Louisiana. Meanwhile, in Falkoeping, Sweden, a hundred dead jackdaws, a bird related to the crow, were found dead on a highway. Seven hundred turtledoves fell from the sky in Faenza, Italy, a few days later.

What was happening in the world? A Google search for “bird mass deaths” produces interesting results, including religious sites proclaiming these mass deaths as a sign of imminent apocalypse (or “aflockalypse,” as some put it). Even one of the wildlife officials in Arkansas joked that they were now waiting for the plague of locusts. Other sites blame the Arkansas event on the military. Another on earthquakes caused by natural gas fracking. Theories expressed in the press have ranged from the usual government conspiracy to power line collisions to violent weather to a shift in the earth’s magnetic poles to a lemming-like mass suicide by animals who couldn’t bear life on this human-corrupted planet any longer.

Turns out most of these mass deaths not only had a rational explanation, but apparently aren’t all that uncommon in the scheme of things. The power of instant communication via the Internet simply generated greater buzz and anxiety among those who in the past would have remained blithely ignorant of such events. Wildlife authorities determined that the Arkansas birds, for example, were scared off their night roosts by fireworks. Not being night fliers, the panicked birds crashed into trees, buildings, and each other in the dark and died of internal trauma. The flock of Swedish jackdaws may have also been startled by fireworks into the road, where they were hit by cars. And it turns out a recent mass bird death in South Dakota really was caused by the government. A few days after the birds were found, the U.S. Department of Agriculture confessed to poisoning the flock, which had been defecating in a feed lot.

Once you start looking, stories of mass deaths aren’t hard to find. Going back to the early 1700s, you can find diary entries of Maine hunters who routinely shot “ten dozens” of the now-extinct passenger pigeon in a day’s outing. In 1976, 60,000 long-tailed ducks in the Baltic Sea made the fatal mistake of landing on what they thought was a smooth patch of water that turned out to be a small oil spill. Somewhat closer to home, 1,600 ducks died in 2009 after landing on oil sand fields that were part of an oil extraction facility run by Syncrude in northern Alberta, Canada. The oil coated the birds’ feathers, causing them to sink and drown.

The key is to put these stories in perspective. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology recently explained in an eNews release, “These isolated events, although dramatic, are not highly unusual in frequency or scale. Within the United States, for example, the U.S. Geological Survey has recorded 188 events during the past 10 years involving more than 1,000 birds per incident — about 18 events per year on average, or more than one per month, attributed to disease and other causes.” The more newsworthy mass events overshadow the basic fact that humans exact a much larger toll on birds every single day, with much broader implications for species’ survival.

As Jeff Wells, Senior Scientist for the Boreal Songbird Initiative, stated in a recent piece about this confluence of mass deaths: “[These] mortality events are sad and tragic but of far greater overall impact to most bird populations are factors like habitat loss and degradation – the leading cause of decline – as well as issues like climate change, pollution (including from air pollution, pesticides, oil spills, etc.), invasive species, collisions with buildings, telephone wires, and communication towers, and domestic cat predation.” He adds, “Perhaps the most valuable lesson we can take away from these reports is a general awareness of our growing impacts on birds and other animals.”

The Cornell Lab cites statistics of 100 million birds dying each year from window collisions; another 100 million are killed by cats. That’s an average of more than 540,000 birds killed each day by those two causes alone! But you don’t see that reported on CNN.

Wells identifies places like the Boreal Forest of Alaska and Canada as being all the more worthy of protection because they are relatively safe places for birds and other wildlife to escape from all these human-generated elements of disaster. Conserved lands, including state and national parks, national wildlife refuges, and land trust or town preserves, should be regarded as all the more valuable for this very same reason.

Here’s one more story that received less coverage, but had arguably greater consequences for the species involved. At the end of this past December, three endangered whooping cranes were found shot dead in Calhoun County, Georgia. This would hardly be considered a significant event, unless you consider that there are only about 400 whooping cranes left in the world.

These birds were probably led to their southern wintering grounds during migration season by a small airplane. Thousands of hours of human effort (and thousands of dollars) were put into their survival, to help ensure the continuance of the species. And some idiot shot them. Whooping cranes are large, striking, majestic white birds. You wouldn’t confuse them with a duck, turkey, or anything else that’s legal to hunt. This wasn’t a mistake. It was a deliberately malicious act, bringing a bird species of incredible beauty and cultural value that much closer to extinction. And that, to me, is more disturbing than any of the recent mass death stories.

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