Monday, January 10, 2011

About birds falling from the sky and hellfire and brimstone descending - what’s it all about and is it a prophecy coming true?

Last week, Beebe in Akansas found itself at the centre of a frenzy of doomsday prophecies and conspiracy theories after some 5,000 dead blackbirds — roughly one for each resident – rained down from the night skies on New Year’s Eve.

That was strange enough. But mass deaths of thousands of birds and millions of fish were also reported elsewhere in Arkansas, in nearby states, and finally worldwide, from Scandinavia to the South Pacific.

As the world wondered whether celestial or terrestrial factors were at play, the commuter town of Beebe, 35 miles north-east of the state capital, Little Rock, was struggling to recover from its “aflockalypse”.

For those outside at about 11pm on New Year’s Eve, it proved a terrifying experience as dead and dying creatures crashed down on to roofs, roads and gardens. The carnage looked even grimmer in daylight.

“People were pretty shell-shocked,” said Karen Rowe, a senior ornithologist with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. “It was very disturbing.”

The Hitchcockian terror of the plummeting corpses was quickly replaced by health fears. Were the birds diseased? Avian flu has, after all, killed hundreds of humans in Asia and Africa. Or was the air toxic? Beebe’s wildlife and environmental officials quickly confirmed that neither was the case as workers in protective suits made their way through streets, scooping up carcases for autopsy or disposal.

Some Christian fundamentalists claimed the end was nigh, finding biblical justification in Hosea 4:1-3, which reads: “Because of this the land dries up, and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea are swept away.”

That the birds fell from the sky in the southern Bible Belt, where Old Testament plagues of frogs and locusts are often viewed as part of a creationist account of history, only fuelled such interpretations. Others cited the so-called “2012 phenomenon”, which holds that December 21 next year is the end of an ancient Mayan calendar count that will bring catastrophe to the world — a view that is, significantly, not shared by the modern Mayan.

Even for those who did not construe these deaths as an end-of-the-world harbinger, there were out-of-the-world explanations aplenty — be it microwaves from Mars, solar flares, secret military tests, or gas seeping from fault lines.

It was actually the day before Beebe was turned into an avian killing field that a tugboat operator spotted some 100,000 drum fish floating in the Arkansas river 125 miles away. A couple of days later, another 500 dead blackbirds fell to earth in southern Louisiana, an estimated two million juvenile spot fish washed up on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, and another bird kill was reported in Kentucky.

By now, this trend was going global. Swedish authorities reported the deaths of dozens of jackdaws, hundreds of dead snapper were found in New Zealand, and 100 tons of catfish and sardines washed up in Brazil. On Friday, came reports of turtle doves falling from the sky near Ravenna, Italy, and thousands of dead crabs on the coast around Thanet in Kent.

Conservationists and scientists then claimed that such mass mortalities were not uncommon and there were straightforward explanations. Although tests are continuing, the birds in Louisiana seemed to have flown into power lines, the fish in Arkansas have died from disease or pollution, and those in the Chesapeake were killed by the coldest waters in 25 years. So, said UK experts, were the crabs.

By late last week, a mixture of investigative lab-work and legwork had apparently also cracked the great Beebe blackbird whodunit. And there was a distinctly human cause — New Year’s Eve firework celebrations had spooked the birds to death.

They died from blunt force trauma, preliminary test results indicated. Witnesses described how just before the carnage, window-rattling booms from firework displays had echoed through the neighbourhood, flushing the flock from its overnight roost in trees. Doppler radar, which tracks the weather, showed that large flocks were flying over Beebe late on December 31. With notoriously bad night vision, the flight was fatal for thousands of blackbirds.

“They were flying low and fast and simply crashing into buildings, trees and vehicles,” said Miss Rowe. “There has been lots of speculation about chemicals, toxins, pesticides and the like. But the tests so far show no sign of anything like that. In fact, they seemed very healthy.”

Miss Rowe has been besieged by so many outlandish suggestions that she has stopped taking calls from members of the public. Even when the preliminary findings were published, postings on the commission’s website accused it of a cover-up as the conspiracy brigade clung to the mysterious over the mundane.

The fact that ornithological experts had initially disagreed on the cause — some blamed violent weather, others suspected deliberate killing by poison in an act of avicide — only fuelled the conviction that something was amiss.

“Unfortunately, the autopsies will probably not detect or disprove microwaves from outer space,” Miss Rowe said with a sigh of resignation.

“I feel like the spoiler at the party when I explain that there is nothing there to justify a conspiracy theory. They just got flushed from their roost, crashed into things and died. The only thing this has in common with dead fish in the Arkansas river or dead birds in Louisiana is that they have nothing in common.”

Mass wildlife deaths usually go unnoticed, out at sea or away from settlements. “Bird die-offs can be caused by starvation, storms, disease, pesticides, collisions with man-made structures or human disturbance,” said Greg Butcher, director of bird conservation at the Audubon Society. In other instances, storms have sucked up fish and frogs and dumped the dead animals long distances away. The 1999 film Magnolia, starring Tom Cruise, featured frogs raining from the sky.

“This is a classic example of freak events coinciding,” noted Peter Boeckmann, a leading Norwegian zoologist. “In the United States, the reaction is: 'Oh no, doomsday is coming!’ In Sweden, they say, 'Let’s call the veterinary authorities.’”

In Beebe, there was little lamenting for birds, widely viewed as pests. The flocks that descend on the town are so large that they turn the skies dark, and some locals shelter under umbrellas for trips to the shops to protect against their droppings.

Residents now just want a return to the quiet life. “It certainly has been an interesting start to the new year,” said Lee McLane, editor of The Beebe News. “Let’s hope it calms down from here.

Well who knows? What I do know is that coincidence is rare there is something else connecting all this together and what that may be is anybody’s guess? I guess we might never know or we might all just be in for a rude awakening!