Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Four and twenty blackbirds

It sounds like something from The X-Files.

Shortly before midnight on New Year's Eve, about three thousand Red-winged Blackbirds started falling from the sky, near the town of Beebe, Arkansas.  They were apparently dead before impact; one hit a police car, and another struck a woman out for a late-night walk with her dog.

The types of things this would immediately bring to mind -- poison, for example -- make no sense here.  A poison that only affects blackbirds is ridiculous (although, to be honest, apparently a few Common Grackles were also killed; but still).  If there'd been some kind of aerial spraying of a quick-acting toxin, you'd expect that lots of other animals would also have been killed.  Once this was ruled out, other theories began to circulate -- that the birds had been awakened, and startled into flight, by fireworks, and had flown into buildings; that they had been killed by a weather-related event, such as a high altitude hailstorm; that they had been struck by lightning.

None of these seem to hold water.

The frightened-into-collision hypothesis doesn't match the scatter pattern made by the carcasses; I've seen video clips and still photos (check out a video here) and many of the birds didn't land anywhere near buildings.  There aren't any tall buildings in Beebe, anyhow; and from the apparently random way they have fallen, they look to me like they were killed while still aloft and dropped to the ground, landing wherever they happened to land.  The hailstorm and lightning-strike explanations don't line up with the fact that the birds showed no sign of external injuries; hail strikes hard enough to kill would break bones, and lightning would singe feathers.  They seem to have simply... died, suddenly, mid-flight, and plummeted to the ground.

Necropsies performed today showed that many of the birds had internal blood clots sufficient to kill them; but this is by itself only a proximal cause.  What caused the clots to form?  It's hard to imagine anything that could happen to a bird in flight that could cause internal bleeding, much less something that could happen to cause internal bleeding in three thousand birds more-or-less simultaneously.

All of this has wildlife biologists scrambling for answers, and the townsfolk of Beebe are understandably spooked.  One man, interviewed by the local news, said he's not going to let his children play outside until this is solved.  One might accuse him of overreacting -- but honestly, isn't his fear justified?  I know if I woke up one morning to find my front and back yards littered with dead birds, I'd be more than a little skeeved out.

Me, I'm wondering where this will all go.  I'd lay even odds that we'll never figure out what caused the deaths, and it will be filed amongst scientists as one of those oddball phenomena which were never adequately explained -- and will become fuel to the fire to the conspiracy theorists and the-end-of-the-world-is-nigh types.  Already there are websites claiming that this is a sign of the approaching End Times -- although I don't recall from my reading of Revelations anything about birds dying en masse.

In any case, keep your eye on the news, not to mention the sky.  I'd imagine getting beaned by a dead blackbird would smart a little.

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