Blackbird Die-Offs: Another Silent Spring?

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Could the BP Oil Gusher in the Gulf Be to Blame?

“The sedge is wither’d from the lake, and no birds sing.”
John Keats, “La Belle Dame sans Merci”

The Big Picture
by Glynn Wilson

When natural history writer Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, she was violently assailed by threats of lawsuits and derision, including suggestions that this meticulous scientist was a “hysterical woman,” unqualified to write such a book, according to Wikipedia and many other sources from the time. A huge counterattack was organized and led by the Monsanto corporation, Velsicol, American Cyanamid — indeed, the entire chemical industry — duly supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as the more cautious and conservative in the American news media.

A common grackle

Today, as the birds are dying en mass all over the Southeastern United States in a winter that could lead to another very real Silent Spring, any suggestion that the deaths might have something to do with the largest and worst environmental disaster in this nation’s history, the so-called BP oil spill, is met with derision and cat calls of a “conspiracy theory.”

On the other side, many caught up in the full throes of the economic, environmental and health crisis from the BP, Transocean, Halliburton caused disaster along the Gulf of Mexico coast also see a conspiracy and cover up at work, all the way up to and including the White House.

After several days of attempting to research this story as an experienced science writer, it is now obvious to me that we may never get to the bottom of the riddle of the Great Blackbird Die-Off of 2011. Not because of any conspiracy theory on either side, mind you. But because the way modern science works at government agencies is simply not organized or equipped to deal with such a new and massive threat.

If you have been keeping up with the news, you will recall that the first hint of something going horribly wrong came on New Year’s Eve, when revelers in a small Arkansas town were enjoying midnight fireworks and then noticed something other than sparks falling from the sky: thousands of dead blackbirds. The red-winged blackbirds rained out of the darkness onto rooftops and sidewalks and into fields, according to local newspapers, television news broadcasts and the Associated Press.

One bird actually landed on a woman while she was walking her dog. Another hit a police cruiser. Birds were “littering the streets, the yards, the driveways, everywhere,” said Robby King, a county wildlife officer in Beebe, a community of 5,000 people northeast of Little Rock. “It was hard to drive down the street in some places without running over them.”

In all, more than 3,000 birds tumbled to the ground. In the absence of a better explanation, and to avoid creating a public panic, scientists offered the conjecture that perhaps fireworks frightened the birds into such a frenzy that they crashed into homes, cars and each other.

A red-winged blackbird

Fireworks? Really?

Then, a few days later, hundreds of dead and dying blackbirds were found covering a quarter-mile stretch of Highway 1 in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana. It was reported that state biologists were trying to determine what led to the deaths of an estimated 500 red-winged blackbirds and starlings just down the road from Pointe Coupee Central High School.

The discovery of the dead birds — some of which were lying face down, clumped in groups, while others were face up with their wings outstretched and rigid legs pointing upward — came just three days after more than 3,000 blackbirds rained down from the sky in Beebe, Ark.

Necropsies performed on the birds in Arkansas showed some suffered internal injuries that formed blood clots leading to their deaths.

Fireworks? Really?

A few days later, another 300 blackbirds were found dead along Interstate 65 in north Alabama near Athens. Just days later, another mass blackbird die-off was discovered further east near Scottsboro.

In each instance, scientists speculated on a possible cause without much evidence to back up their assertions, and the news media just bought those explanations, even jumping on the band wagon to rule out any possible “conspiracy theory.”

The Christian Science Monitor, a paper I used to do a fair amount of writing for, quickly put out a piece in an attempt to repel the rumors — by repeating the claims from the most zany of conspiracy nuts with “superstitions about birds as omens” of the “end times” and such nonsense.

Come on, people. This is not science journalism. The science in this case so far is so flawed, it is no wonder the people on the Gulf Coast don’t trust the government.


Interviews with scientists at every government agency with any role in this reveals that not one single scientist or agency is asking the right questions, forming the right hypothesis or collecting the right data to get an answer to this bird die-off mystery.

Some of the birds found in Alabama are now being tested at the State Diagnostic Lab at Auburn University, although a conversation with one scientist there Friday morning revealed they are not testing for Volatile Organic Compounds or the chemical compound Corexit.

It is not a conspiracy theory folks. Every agency scientist I talked to indicated it is not in their mission or in their procedures to look at the “macro” or big picture. They have a “micro” view of the world, and go about their business dealing with individual, isolated “mortality events.”

But what is the biggest, most significant event that has happened in the past year in this region that might have an impact not only on the coastal economy, the ecology of the Gulf of Mexico, the beaches and the bayous and human health in the region, but also to potentially cause crop failures next year — and mass bird die-offs now?

Do you think the pumping of 200 million gallons of crude oil into the ocean, along with another 2 million gallons of the chemical compound Corexit, might have something to do with it? Is that a conspiracy theory? Do any of these scientists remember their fourth grade science class?

Perhaps with all their specialized education, they have forgotten a few basic lessons. Here’s a refresher course in evaporation and precipitation.

Even BP officials admitted that a percentage of the oil on the Gulf’s surface would eventually evaporate. Where do water molecules — in this case polluted molecules — go when they evaporate? Into the clouds, of course. In fact, they form their own clouds.

Evaporation is the process whereby water passes from a liquid phase and turns into a gas, which forms steam, condensation, fog — or clouds. Rates of evaporation of water depend on such things as temperature, humidity and wind. What happens to the water molecules in the clouds? They fall back to the earth as precipitation, in the form of rain, sleet and snow. And they do not fall right over where they evaporated from. The clouds are constantly on the move — driven by the wind.

Water that is held in rivers, lakes and oceans evaporates directly into the atmosphere, forming clouds, which move on the wind for hundreds of miles. The ocean is the greatest source for water evaporated into the atmosphere. Because the ocean holds so much of the Earth’s water, it is the greatest source of evaporated water to the atmosphere.

What happens when the ocean is full of oil and chemicals? Those water molecules are polluted with the molecules of oil and chemicals.

The prevailing wind over the Gulf of Mexico normally switches from out of the Southwest or Northwest in the winter to Southeast in summer, but any major weather pattern can change it. Anyone who has ever followed a weather news broadcast on television knows storms either blow south out of Canada, race down to Texas, then sweep toward New Orleans and Mobile, then hit Birmingham and Atlanta the next day and Washington, D.C. the next.

Storm clouds that blow out of the Gulf from the southwest hit New Orleans, Mississippi and the Alabama Gulf Coast first, then head for Birmingham, Jackson, Atlanta and D.C.

Storm clouds out of the southeast would head for Arkansas.

At one point last week, according to the National Weather Service, 70 percent of the U.S. was covered in snow.

Did anybody think to test the snow to see if it contained Corexit, for example? No. They are testing for the typical, routine culprits, such as pesticides and herbicides, which is what caused the birds to die in Rachel Carson’s day. Then, it was DDT, a chemical engineered to kill mosquitoes, which so weakened the shells of bird eggs that they could not sustain the babies long enough to be hatched into this world.

If the blackbirds, cowbirds, starlings and other species were chipping at the snow for food and water, like they do in my yard, they would be ingesting polluted snow. Considering the impacts the stuff is having on people along the Gulf, it would at least seem prudent to test for it.

So far, I’ve not even found one citizen activist environmental group that thought to conduct that testing on the rain, sleet or snow, which means we may never know what is killing the blackbirds.

In the absence of finding a government scientist dealing with the issue, I dug around for an academic source to consider this hypothesis. I called the Chemistry and Physics Department at Birmingham Southern, knowing I would likely not find the exact right expert, but at least someone with a mind for basic science.

I got Dr. Ed Brains on the line, an assistant professor of geography, and explained my thinking.

After listening to me for a little while, he said, “It makes logical sense, but logical sense is not the same as scientific proof.”

Then I managed to get John Hocevar of Greenpeace on the line by e-mail.

“It’s hard to avoid feeling like these stories are all connected, and that this is some sort of apocalyptic global phenomenon,” he said. “So far, though, no one’s been able to either connect the dots or definitively say these are just isolated incidents.”

But whatever the cause or causes of these die-offs, he said, “we can say without question that climate change –often exacerbated by other anthropogenic impacts like ocean acidification, overfishing, release of toxic substances into the environment, and habitat destruction — is already causing die-offs of a wide range of species and disrupting ecosystems on land and water.

“In the coming years and decades, it will always be difficult to identify the smoking gun as the shit continues to hit the fan,” he said. “As with Katrina and any other ‘natural’ disasters, there is the question about the degree to which global warming is responsible. Most scientists’ statements are going to be cautious, because the data won’t be able to prove anything one way or another with 100 percent certainty in such complex systems. The ‘greater truth’ is that these local disasters are examples of the kinds of things that will only increase in frequency and severity as long as we continue our reliance on fossil fuels.”

Finally, someone looking at the big picture, thinking down the road, making sense. Now if only the government scientists would take this into account, another economic issue might become easier to resolve.

Any economic, environmental or health damage that can be linked to the Gulf oil disaster can be charged to the British Petroleum corporation by the U.S. government under the law.

While there is no doubt the Obama administration would like to forget the oil gusher for political reasons, so it can move ahead with other priorities, it is not in the interest of the citizens or the taxpayers — or the government — of this country to miss a single opportunity to make the oil giant pay for its crimes against nature in the Gulf.

So let us beseech ye scientists to watch these videos for a refresher course in evaporation and precipitation, and to begin asking the right questions that might result in full payback to our national treasury. The people of this country, and its representatives in the press, should demand nothing less.

The official Website for the Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil disaster does not include the blackbird die-offs, at least not yet.

Weekly Bird Impact Data and Consolidated Wildlife Reports

The Google Map showing many bird die offs.

NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

This animation shows one molecule of water completing the hydrologic cycle. Heat from the sun causes the molecule to evaporate from the ocean’s surface. Once it evaporates, it is transported high in the atmosphere and condenses to form clouds. Clouds can move great distances and eventually the water molecule will fall as rain or snow. Ultimately, the water molecule arrives back where it started…at the ocean.

Eureka! Episode 18 – Evaporation and Condensation

© 2011 – 2015, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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