Paranoia or cover-up in Arkansas bird and fish die-off?

The biblically-obsessed are already calling it a prophecy of the End Times. (, Jan. 4) (Actually, contrary to the breathless and spelling-challenged spewings of the paranoid, there is no reference to birds falling from the sky in Revelations. It is in the far less sexy pseudepigraphic Apocalypse of Elijah.) But does anyone else out there find the official explanations singularly implausible? From the PBS News Hour, Jan. 4:

Birds Tumbling From the Sky; Fish Floating Dead in the Water:
How Unusual Are These Animal Die-Offs?

On New Years Day, residents of Beebe, Ark., awoke to find some 5,000 dead blackbirds strewn across roads, lawns and rooftops. Three days later, 125 miles from Beebe, thousands of fish were found dead on riverbanks and floating along the Arkansas River. And Tuesday, the bodies of 500 redwing blackbirds, European starlings and cowbirds were found along a stretch of highway near Baton Rouge, La., after plummeting to their death.

All three mass die-offs are a mystery, but despite the proximity, they don’t appear to be linked, scientists say.

So how unusual are these events?

LeAnn White, a wildlife disease specialist at the U.S. Geological Survey, said bird kills occur more frequently than the public realizes. The USGS database contains at least 16 cases in the last 20 years of large numbers of blackbirds dying in contained areas.

“We just think it’s a rather strange coincidence,” she said.

The most likely explanation for what caused the birds to plunge from the Arkansas sky is sudden trauma. Roosting birds probably panicked at the sound of holiday fireworks, flew into a frenzy and then crashed into each other at high speeds, scientists say. White said the Louisiana birds probably flew into a power line.

“Blackbirds will naturally, at this time of year, spend the night in large roosts, in thousands,” said Doug Inkley, senior scientist at the National Wildlife Federation. “If they are frightened, which easily could be the case with fireworks, they could panic.” And birds colliding at 40 miles per hour could easily kill each other.

Plus, preliminary reports released Monday by the Livestock and Poultry Commission Veterinary Diagnostic Lab show blood clots and internal bleeding in many of the birds, indicating that trauma had occurred before the fall. “These are not just dead birds lying on the ground,” Inkley said. “These are damaged, dead birds lying on the ground.”

The fish kill may be even more mysterious. Frank Leone, a fisheries management biologist at the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission arrived at the bank of the Arkansas River after dark on Dec 29 to find nearly 2,000 freshwater drum fish washed up on a small stretch of sand and rocks. The next morning, on the main river channel, they found scores of fish floating dead in the main river channel.

“I knew then that it was a bigger kill than what we’d thought the night before,” Leone said.

Scientists estimate that about 83,000 fish died along a 17-mile stretch of the Arkansas River, a kill bigger than any Leone has seen in his 10 years as a local biologist. Chris Racey, the commission’s assistant chief of fisheries, also characterized the magnitude of the die-off as fairly rare.

But Doug Inkley, senior scientist at the National Wildlife Federation, says that fish kills are more common than many realize and often human-caused.

Common culprits include toxic chemicals released into rivers and overfertilization, usually from farm runoff, he says. Both can cause oxygen depletion and dead zones in rivers and oceans. But such pollution would impact more than one fish, and in this case, 99 percent of the fish found dead were drum fish, with an occasional yellow bass, white bass and sauger fish affected.

Samples have been sent to the lab for analysis, and while results from the necropsies won’t be complete for another three weeks, disease is considered a top contender. “Many diseases are host-specific, so it’s a reasonable speculation on the part of the agencies,” Inkley says.

Drum fish are bottom feeders; they feed on mollusks, mussels and aquatic insects. The average adult size ranges from 12 to 20 inches, and while most weigh in at about 33 pounds, they’ve been known to get much bigger. A 45-pounder was caught once in 2004.

“We’re running a gamut of tests on the fish,” Racey said. “I think the diagnostics we’re conducting will help point us in a direction that may give us more answers as to why this occurred.”

We have no idea what is behind this, but we suggest that instead of looking to biblical prophecy for context, we look to the devastating floods in Australia (BBC News, Jan. 4), the anomalous snowstorms in Europe (Reuters, Dec. 24)—and the rising rate of global “natural” disasters. The Florida Sun-Sentinel’s Storm Center blog, citing the insurance trade journal ERM Jan. 4, notes that there were 950 natural disasters worldwide last year, killing a total of about 295,000 people and left about $130 billion in damage. That’s up from an average of 785 cited by the insurance industry in a typical year. 90% of the 950 were weather-related.

See other signs of global ecological collpase and (shudder) the End Times.

  1. 500 more dead blackbirds…
    …this time across the state line in Louisiana… while new fish die-off are reported from Chesapeake Bay…and Brazil Still a coincidence? From NY Daily News, Jan. 4:

    Bizarre blackbird, fish deaths spread: 500 birds dead in Louisiana; 100 tons of fish die in Brazil
    It isn’t 2012, but a rash of animal deaths is making this year look like the End of Days.

    Following on the heels of thousands of red-winged blackbirds dying in a small Arkansas town, several hundred more mysteriously died farther south in Louisiana.

    Officials are trying to determine what killed an estimated 500 of the small birds, who littered Louisiana Highway 1 near Pointe Coupee Parish when they fell out of the sky, according to Baton Rouge’s The Advocate.

    Among this new batch of dead birds were several starlings, the newspaper reported.

    “We have sent bird carcasses to two individual labs to obtain toxicology reports,” Bo Boehringer, spokesperson for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, told the Daily News.

    He said it was not clear what had caused the birds to die off, despite random theories including fireworks or hail, as well as the wrath of God and government conspiracies. Boehringer downplayed any connection between the red-winged blackbird deaths in Louisiana to the ones in Arkansas, several hundred miles away.

    “It’s too early to connect the two scenarios,” he said, noting that it could be a week or more before the results come back.

    Meanwhile, as officials in Arkansas continue to investigate what may have killed nearly 100,000 fresh water drum in the Arkansas River, wildlife experts in Maryland are looking into their own massive fish kill in the Chesapeake Bay.

    “We are seeing small/juvenile menhaden, croaker, spot fish dead, in very large fish kills,” said Dawn Stoltzfus, director of communications for Maryland’s Department of the Environment. “The numbers are estimated in the hundreds of the thousands at this point.”

    Officials began receiving reports of the dead fish last week. The species there generally leave for warmer waters during this time of year, but it was not clear why that did not happen, she said.

    “The drop in water temperatures has been quite quick in December, and cold stress is the likely cause [of the deaths],” Stoltzfus said.

    The last time the Chesapeake saw such a massive fish kill was in 1976, records show, when about 15 million spot died due to the cold.

    Mysterious animal deaths so far this year have not been limited to the United States.

    Nearly 100 tons of dead fish, consisting mostly of sardines, hit the beaches of Paranagua, Brazil, on Sunday.

    According to Paraná Online, a team from the Environmental Institute of Paran?/a>? is conducting tests to determine what killed them. As a precaution, the sale of seafood in Paranagua has been suspended.

    The website also reports dead fish have begun to appear along the coasts of Antonina, Guaraquecaba and Pontal do Pontal do Paraná.

    “We desperately need a solution to this,” said Edmir Manoel Ferreira, president of the Federation of Fishermen of Paraná.

  2. USDA behind Arakansas ornithicide?
    From Pet Pulse, Jan. 28, 2009:

    FRANKLIN, N.J. — And, then, there were none.

    New Jersey residents awoke to a morbid note on Saturday morning, after federal officials killed as many as 5,000 European starling birds with pesticides the previous evening. Hundreds of the birds were reported to have fallen onto private residents’ lawns, driveways, and even cars.

    The black carcasses were strewn across Franklin, N.J., among other towns in southern Somerset County.

    “It was raining birds,” Franklin Township Mayor Brian Levine told The Associated Press. “It got people a little anxious.”

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture utilized a bird-specific pesticide, DRX-1339, which it says is harmless to humans and other animals.

    New Jersey pet owners still looked to the local government for reassurance, however, that their animals would not be affected by the pesticide. At the very least, one resident said, they could have received a warning about the culling in advance.

    Meanwhile, although it made much less of a media splash, MWZA News reported Jan. 6 that hundreds of blackbird, grackles, robins and starlings rained down from the sky that week in Murray, Kentucky. Also that week, thousands of dead birds were also discovered in Faenza Ravenna, Italy; Sweden reported that over 50 dead jackdaw birds were discovered; and England claimed that more than 40,000 dead crabs washed up on the country’s shores.

    Back in the summer, hundreds of thousands of dead fish—mostly bunker fish—washed ashore along the Delaware Bay’s beaches, the Press of Atlantic City reported Aug. 11. Maybe this kind of thing happens pretty frequently, and the Arkansas case just happened to make a media splash? Or maybe it is a recent trend…

  3. Ornithicide redux
    Citing local media reports, Huffington Post on Jan. 13 noted another mass unexplained bird kill—this time an estimated 300 dead grackles, a common black bird, falling out of the sky along highway I-65 in Alabama.

    In addition to the international cases already noted above, Huff Post reports recent unexplained massive fish kills in New Zealand, as well as 40,000 dead crabs washing ashore on England’s beaches.

    All Headline News on Jan. 20 notes 200 cows found dead on a farm in Wisconsin’s Portage County, although here the culprit may have been pneumonia.