Why those massive bird deaths may not be such a big deal after all

Contributed by
Dec 14, 2012

Trace chemical pollutants? Secret government experiments? A sign of the End of Times? These are some of the reasons conspiracy theorists give to explain the sudden die-offs of birds in Arkansas and Louisiana, as well as recent fish deaths in Maryland, Vietnam and Britain. However, the real answer isn't quite what you'd expect.

In an MSNBC article, wildlife disease specialist LeAnn White of the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center said that these deaths can be attributed to either natural causes, such as weather, parasites and disease, or man-made causes, such as pollution and fireworks. And there are more than you'd anticipate:

MSNBC wrote:

In the past eight months, the USGS has logged 95 mass wildlife die-offs in North America and that's probably a dramatic undercount, White said. The list includes 900 some turkey vultures that seemed to drown and starve in the Florida Keys, 4,300 ducks killed by parasites in Minnesota, 1,500 salamanders done in by a virus in Idaho, 2,000 bats that died of rabies in Texas, and the still mysterious death of 2,750 sea birds in California.

But according to Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, the special sauce in this particular wave of concern is technology.

No, the animal kingdom isn't under threat of attack from radio waves. But because of cell phones and the Internet, we've simply become more AWARE of animal die-offs than ever before.

Wilson told MSNBC that instant communication "is giving a skewed view of what is happening in the environment."

How frequently does this occur?

On average, 163 such events are reported to the federal government each year, according to USGS records. And there have been much larger die-offs than the 3,000 blackbirds in Arkansas. Twice in the summer of 1996, more than 100,000 ducks died of botulism in Canada.

The experts interviewed seemed blasé about the problem of sudden animal die-offs. More important than sudden die-offs, according to Wilson, is the problem of mass extinction as a result of human activity.

In other words, we should be worried. But at the moment, we're worried about the wrong problem.