Jan. 7, 2011 at 2:32 PM ET
Birds are indeed in trouble. But this trouble has nothing to do with freakish events such as the thousands of blackbirds that fell from the sky in Arkansas on New Year's Eve. Rather, experts say birds are falling prey to a laundry list of long-term threats ranging from pollution and habitat loss to climate change.
The bird deaths in Arkansas, along with more deaths that have been reported in Louisiana, then Kentucky and Sweden, have been swept up into a phenomenon that's been dubbed the "aflockalypse" — but these events are actually relatively routine. They're not a sign that the end is near.
"I don't think there is a story here," Stuart Pimm, a conservation ecologist at Duke University, told me when I asked for his take on the buzz surrounding the birds. "It is probably just a bunch of independent events that have suddenly generated public notoriety and that's got everybody worried."
Birds in trouble
But that doesn't mean there's nothing to worry about. Pimm noted that one in six bird species is threatened with extinction.
"That is a story that is due to habitat loss and global climate disruption and a variety of global causes like that. That is something we were worried about last year, and we should be worried about now, and it is something that we should be worried about 10 years from now," he said. "But I don't think they have anything to do with the current events."
The current events are "the kind of thing we deal with everyday," said Krysten Schuler, a wildlife ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who helps maintain a database on wildlife die-offs. Whether or not mass die-offs are on the uptick is uncertain – the biologists only know about those that are reported. They suspect that many, perhaps most, are never brought to their attention.
What's different over the past few days is more people are noticing the die-offs and, at least for the moment, reporting them. This may be the result of technology – cell phones, the Internet, and instant global communications, Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson told The Associated Press on Thursday.
The USGS' Schuler told me the flood of reports will likely die down in a few weeks once the current media buzz abates.
"The fact is, if they don't hear about dead birds, they might see some and not think about it or not think it is important to call somebody about it," she said. "Hopefully, by increasing public awareness, they'll be more likely to report other events in the future."
Keeping tabs on wildlife health
Learning more about mass die-offs will help scientists keep a closer eye on wildlife health, which is related to the health of humans and domestic animals, Schuler added. Many emerging infectious diseases, she noted, have their origins in wildlife populations.
"With the loss of habitat and places for the wildlife to be, you get more interaction between wildlife and humans, which crowds wildlife, and in crowded conditions you are more likely to have disease issues," she said.
While these are important issues, the experts say folks who are concerned about the current spate or bird deaths should focus instead on the bigger picture.
"I know many of your readers want Agents Scully and Mulder to go and investigate this," Pimm told me. "But no, the X-Files people have not been in touch with [me] and asked [me] to fly in a black helicopter to go and investigate them. I don' think there is anything untoward about this."
More about the real threats to birds: