Smithsonian Bird Curator: Die Off Is Not Such A Big Deal

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Something seems rotten in the state of Arkansas. It has been widely reported that on New Year’s Eve, up to 5,000 red-winged blackbirds were found dead in the small town of Beebe, Arkansas. Three days later, a reported 83,000 fish turned up dead in the Arkansas River. While the official causes of both spates of deaths are still under investigation, speculation runs rampant. The timing of the deaths seem curious, but, according to one expert, reports of their significance have been greatly exaggerated.

“It sounds cooler and neater and more mysterious than it probably, actually is,” said Gary Graves, a Smithsonian curator of birds, “and that’s from a professional viewpoint.” Graves has worked at the Smithsonian for 25 years, where he researches all things pertaining to birds.

When Graves first heard about the blackbird deaths, he didn’t think much of it. He still doesn’t. “The blackbirds are considered a nuisance, especially in the south where large winter roosts occur,” said Graves, who grew up in Little Rock. Blackbirds are protected under the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. But, in large numbers, they can be noisy, messy and destructive. When this occurs, roosts may be disrupted passively—using loud noises to scare the birds away—or directly. Depredation permits can be issued, allowing for a certain number of birds to be killed. But "semi-unexplained" bird kills, even in the thousands, are not infrequent in the world of ornithology. “There are hundreds of thousands to millions of birds in one roost,” said Graves,  “So, percentage wise, a few thousand out of a few million is not much.”

The unusual thing, according to Graves, is not that thousands of blackbirds died, but rather where they were found. “If it had happened in some crop land outside of town and not in people’s yards, nobody would have noticed it in the first place,” he said.

But people did notice. And as the official investigation continues, so does the speculation. “People’s imaginations are running wild,” Graves said. Theories range from “the really sublimely ridiculous,” like flying saucers and top-secret government weapons, to slightly more feasible explanations, like: weather, fireworks, or "fracking, a strange thing where they pump high pressure air into the ground to crack rocks to release gas from natural gas formation." But no one knows conclusively what happened.

So what about the dead fish and the 500 dead birds found dead in New Road, Louisiana, days later? Coincidence or ongoing conspiracy?

“It looks like a pattern,” Graves said. “These things happen fairly frequently and it’s probably just a coincidence that it happened together. It’s like looking at murders in Detroit, Baltimore, and New York City. They don’t really have any connection to one another, but it might look funny if there’s a spate of criminal activity in each of these places at the same time.”

Graves does not believe that the deaths are the result of anything nefarious, but cannot say so conclusively, as he has not seen any of the specimen currently being examined. Instead, he urges patience. “The CSI stuff you see on TV, they fix everything in 50 minutes, two days at the most,” he said. “In real life, it takes much longer than that.” Eventually, he said, we’ll have the answer. Until then, we wait.

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