Saturday, January 8, 2011

Die-offs Part of Life

First it was blackbirds falling from the sky, then it was reports of a mass die-off of 83,000 drum (fish) in Arkansas.  Bloggers across the country wrote alarming columns of doom, labeling the crisis "Aflockalypse".

Die-offs are part of life and occur frequently around the world.  There are on average 163 events like this reported every year to the federal government.  The Boston Globe quotes statistics from the US Geological Survey.
The US Geological Service’s website lists about 90 mass deaths of birds and other wildlife from June through Dec. 12.  Five list deaths of at least 1,000 birds and another 12 show at least 500 dead birds.
The largest was near Houston, Minn., where about 4,000 water birds died between Sept. 6 and Nov. 26 from infestations of various parasites.
In birds alone, possible factors include lightening, hailstorms, fireworks confusing the flock, massive flocks flying into power lines, disease, toxins, etc.  The very flocking behavior that is an effective defense against aerial predators may predispose flocks to fly into buildings, power lines and wind turbines in large numbers.  In one episode in 1996, 100,000 ducks died of botulism in Canada.  (

So why has this phenomena hit the news so dramatically now?  Instant, constant and dramatic news.  Even days later there are hysterical articles about the growing numbers.  Google Maps even can show you up-to-date maps of where they are occurring and refer you to each story (latest listing, 26 events). (see this Google Site)

"Blame technology," says famed Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson.  With the Internet, cell phones and worldwide communications, people are noticing events, connecting the dots more.  "This instant and global communication, it's just a human instinct to read mystery and portents of dangers and wondrous things in events that are unusual," Wilson said. "Not to worry, these are not portents that the world is about to come to an end."  News-Leader

Unlike White Nose and Colony Collapse, this is not the end of the species.  It is an opportunity to study what went wrong and to improve our relationship with the ecosystem.

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