After thousands of birds mysteriously died in Arkansas, Louisiana, and other places around the world—along with some fish—news outlets responded by framing the incidents as apocalyptic. CNN, for reasons that no human could ever explain, even brought in 80s child star Kirk Cameron, to reassure the public that this wasn’t a sign of the end times, ruffling the feathers of real experts like Sharon Stiteler, a respected author and founder of birdchick.com.
On her website, she rationally explained how 100,000,000 birds die annually from hitting windows and that the media’s portrayal of the mass deaths were more extraordinary than the deaths themselves.
I contacted Stiteler via email and she agreed to answer a few questions:
First off, what are your credentials and where do you work?
I was given a Peterson Field Guide to Birds when I was 7 years old and snapped. I love birds, it’s just the way I’m wired. Since 1997 I’ve made it my goal to get paid to go bird watching from working with live birds of prey, to banding pelicans and songbirds and I even helped with Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. I founded the popular birding blog Birdchick.com and have been in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and on NBC Nightly News as well as making regular appearances on Twin Cities’ TV and radio stations. I’m a professional speaker and story teller and my writing can be found in several publications including WildBird Magazine, Birds and Blooms, Outdoor News, and Birding Business. I wrote the books Disapproving Rabbits and City Birds/Country Birds. When I’m not digiscoping or banding birds, I’m a National Park Ranger and award-winning beekeeper (I keep bees with author Neil Gaiman).
How would you describe the media’s coverage of the incidents and talk of it being the “End Times”?
Sad and incorrect. At first, I was irritated that so many people were freaking out at these reports. Birders hear about this all the time. Now, I’m glad the people know about it. People should be alarmed, but not because it is the “End Times” but because that day to day human activity can kill many birds at once. Don’t light fireworks where birds are roosting. Let’s try to design windows and towers in a way that birds will not fly into them.
Is Kirk Cameron considered a respected voice in the birding community?
That question made me laugh out loud for a good 2 minutes. No. I can say with firm authority that Kirk Cameron is not a respect voice in the birding community. I read that question to a fellow Park Ranger and had to explain who he was.
Is there any relation to the sudden death of the blackbirds in Arkansas and Louisiana?
The Arkansas event and the Louisiana event are separate. Both flocks died from colliding with something but not the same something.
What do you think is the most likely scenario to explain their death?
First, you need to understand blackbird behavior in winter. They are in huge, tight knit flocks in winter. This helps the group have more eyes to watch for potential food sources and predators. They roost in trees practically shoulder to shoulder when they sleep. Do a Google Image Search for either “blackbird flock” or “starling flock” and you will get an idea of how large and how dense these flocks are. The Arkansas flock was sleeping. A loud noise from overhead, most likely fireworks,(it’s common for people to set off legal and illegal fireworks on New Year’s Eve) startled the birds sleeping in the trees. In a panic they flew in the opposite direction of the noise. In the case of fireworks, that would be into houses, trees and into each other. All the birds tested had injuries in the front–they flew into something.
The reason why we don’t see this sort of death at the Fourth of July is that the birds are not in tight flocks. They are breeding and do not tolerate being close to each other. Birds and bats get killed on Fourth of July, but they are not in large flocks. You may see a bird on the ground the next day and pay no attention. One dead bird doesn’t get attention like 1000s.
The Louisiana flock was on the side of a road. When I first saw the photo, I thought, “Birds flew into a truck.” Happens a lot, especially when they are chased by something like a Cooper’s hawk.
How about the turtle doves in Italy? Surely that’s a sign of the impending Rapture, no?
From what I read about this, the doves have a blue substance around their beaks and were near some spilled seed at an industrial site. It sounds like poisoning to me. Rock Pigeons are poisoned on a regular basis in many US cities and people don’t care. Although, these poisoned birds do pose a risk to Peregrine Falcons and Red-tailed Hawks.
You mentioned an incident in NYC where the WTC tribute lights attracted thousands of birds. Had those lights not been turned off, is it possible that that we would have seen a similar amount of deaths that we saw in Arkansas and Louisiana?
That’s a good question. No, because this is not a time for birds to migrate. Also, those are powerful lights shooting up into the sky. They do not have anything like that in Arkansas or Louisiana.
So there you have it, the world is not ending… yet! 2012? (Photos: Birdchick.com)