Let me start this blog by saying I am no expert nor I do not believe the sightings of dead birds and massive fish kills are a sign of impending doom (“flockopalypse”). If you haven’t followed the events, here is a quick recap of the incidents (source Reuters January 6th article). Up to 5,000 blackbirds fell from the sky on New Year’s Eve in BeeBee, Arkansas. A few days later, approximately 450 red-winged blackbirds and starlings were discovered along a highway in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana. Massive bird deaths have also been reported in Tennessee and Kentucky. This week about hundred birds were found along a roadside in Geyserville, California.
I have heard lots of ideas on why the birds are dying (fireworks, thunder/lightening storms, car collisions, power lines, intentional poisoning, disease, cold, and secret government testing) tossed around and have found none of them satisfying. How many mass bird deaths have been recorded in years past due to fireworks? I haven’t heard of any. Since when do birds fall from the sky when disoriented? Road kills might nab a few birds, but by the hundreds? Early necropsies findings have not revealed toxins were the cause.
It seemed to me that while the truck or the fireworks might have triggered the birds into flight, it would not account for the scale of observed deaths. I started to think that maybe the root cause of the deaths was that the birds were disoriented. The dead birds are largely comprised of blackbirds that are known to have limited ability to navigate at night. Could the phenomenon be a result of magnetoreception gone awry?
According to a 2005 paper by Mouritsen and Ritz (Current Opinion in Neurobiology Vol.15, pages 406-414), birds navigate by two primary mechanisms: by a light-dependent compass and an ability to detect changes in magnetic field intensity and/or inclination. If the birds were known migrants, the first mechanism supports the theory that fireworks could very well have been responsible for the Arkansas die off. However, it seems more likely that if birds use the earth’s magnetism, then being unexpectedly startled might create disoriented birds. Mouritsen and Ritz (2005) noted that the European robins, a night migrant, can become disoriented when exposed to radio-frequency magnetic fields.
These lines of evidence lead me to explore the web and what I found supported my theory. An airport in Tampa Florida actually closed its runways on January 6th due to a shift in the magnetic north pole. Scary? Not really. The shifting of the North Pole is not a new phenomenon. Back in 2005, Joe Stoner, a paleomagnetist at Oregon State University, reported that the shift is likely a normal oscillation of the Earth’s magnetic field (see full article by National Geographic News: news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/12/1215_051215_north_pole.html).
It originally troubled me that blackbirds and starlings appear to be the types of birds primarily included in the mass die offs. However, it is relatively rare to observe intact dead birds in the wild. Scavengers have a way of running off with their windfalls. Perhaps the changing magnetic field has affected other species, but we just haven’t noticed because the scale of the deaths are small by comparison. And, of course, perhaps I am wrong. Like I said, I am no expert. This explanation is just a theory.