Sometimes I wonder if there's any hope for skepticism

My friend Mark sent me to an excellent article over at National Geographic that explains all of the recent mass bird deaths people have been freaking out about. Is it the Apocalypse? Do we need to call Kirk Cameron?! Was 2012 a typo and the Mayans meant 2011?!?!

Nope. Turns out it’s normal, and the media decided to hype it up:

But the in-air bird deaths aren’t due to some apocalyptic plague or insidious experiment—they happen all the time, scientists say. The recent buzz, it seems, was mainly hatched by media hype.

At any given time there are “at least ten billion birds in North America … and there could be as much as 20 billion—and almost half die each year due to natural causes,” said ornithologist Greg Butcher, director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society in Washington, D.C.

But what causes dead birds to fall from the sky en masse? The Arkansas case points to two common culprits: loud noises and crashes.

What follows is a more in depth explanation that I, as a biologist, found interesting. I was content knowing skepticism had prevailed once again… until I made the mistake of reading the comments. Emphasis mine:

?Now that the evil media brought falling dead birds to our attention I ask why hasn’t NG ever done a documentary on this ‘common’ occurrence that apparently the general population knows nothing about? It is strange that so many of us have not witnessed birds dropping from the sky at a fireworks show. World firework competitions are held every year in my area and not one bird has died from blunt force trauma. I know wind turbines are deadly for birds and bats and solutions are being examined. I remember a robin hitting the window one day… it was stunned and it took awhile, but he eventually flew away… obviously a lucky one.

“Alfred Hitchcock knew a thing or two! Birds don’t fall from the sky! We’ve been setting off fireworks for 235 years and this has NEVER happened!!! Wake up America! This is just another government compromise for terror! Are we going to wait until PEOPLE start dropping dead in the streets? Get A grip”

“What else did she say that ya’ll aren’t printing? What’s up with this story? “Birds just die all the time, no big!!” Well, they don’t fall from the sky all the time. And our global environment isn’t poisoned all the time like it was with this gulf spill made worse by corexit. Then you’ve got cell masts and communications technology that has been shown to cross the blood-brain barrier and dead birds and health problems surrounding cell masts.
What’s the deal here, National Geo? I subscribe and love your articles and photos.. You’re one of the best. But printing garbage like this really makes me lose faith. I thought, Oh good! National Geographic did a story on this. Then I read it and felt very frustrated.
Birds do not fall en masse out of the sky all the time. It does not happen. Does Mr. Whatsit from the Audobahn society think we’re all stupid?
Do you?”

Yes, yes I do.

I was about to lament that there was no hope, but as I was writing this post, this comment appeared:

almost all of theses skeptical comments are more irrational than unexplained mass animal death. Little creatures are most susceptible to minute events. Your anecdotal evidence that “i’ve never heard of this” or “this has never happened” has zero weight in the real world of animal life. You ignore basic facts of animal life that has happened since thousands of years before your ignorance was formed and insist there must be something sinister happening.

your tinfoil hats reflecting sunlight probably kill more birds through disorientation than any of your made up fantasies.

One out of 25 people being sane is good, right? …Right?


  1. Azkyroth says

    One out of 25 people being sane is good, right? …Right?

    No. But it’s a start, and sometimes it’s all that’s needed.

  2. says

    Time and time again, after enjoying an interesting news article, I have to ask myself … why … WHY … do I always feel compelled to read the comments.The social web has destroyed my faith in humanity. Rational folks, let’s start a new internet. We won’t tell the others.

  3. Fnmckool says

    Irony aside, you have to understand that most people who feel the need to comment on news stories on news sites usually AREN’T all that sane. There’s a certain impulse control problem and/or vanity that inspires that sort of outburst initially. Why else would you, totally not credentialed stranger think that your opinion stated in less than a few hundred characters has any weight with any other strangers? The only reason for that is you’re RIGHT! You are SOOOOOO RIGHT that the sheer RIGHTNESS of your opinion will sway everyone who reads your comment. And that takes a special kind of nuts. Then there are the by standers, sane and otherwise alike who get yoinked in by that crazy and so the cyclone begins…

  4. says

    i suspect media hype as well to a degree, and completely dismiss the end-of-the-world crap, but no matter how often animal deaths like this happen without notice, i hope we always continue to check into the matter very carefully. Ecology moves exponentially and these animals are our biological indicators. But thank you for your blog post. Was getting a bit tired of all the freak out.

  5. mkb says

    Didn’t anybody watch the Sugar Bowl? The reason all the birds fell from the sky is that our receivers kept dropping them.

  6. NotThatGreg says

    Agreed. There’s a strong self-selection bias towards comments from such nutbars — especially when weighted by column-inches. And they probably spend time looking for articles like this so they can rant on them. [Edit:] Considering the bias, 1 in 25 looks pretty good for the ‘sane’ team.

  7. Azkyroth says

    I just got nominated for a Shorty Award in the #boobs category. I’m oddly flattered

    Having seen the photos, I don’t think “flattered” is the word you want. :P

  8. maja says

    Wow, I just had a look at the first few comments and they’re just hilarious!”I believe this is article is all theory since no one truly knows what exactly happened to these animals and therefore this article cannot be accepted in its entirety. I believe that the tectonic plates are shifting, causing earthquakes and those quakes are causing the magnetic field to loose its feng shui for a fraction of a second. Birds and fish need the field in order to be properly orientated.”Yep, the article is all theory but their beliefs about tectonic plates and feng shui are probably right! hahaha

  9. Don_hendi (dg3hda) says

    >. Then you’ve got cell masts and communications technology that has been shown to cross the blood-brain barrier and dead birds and health problems surrounding cell masts.Wow. That blood-brain barrier of tweety really must be a big thing if a cell mast fits through it…

  10. Lodevijk says

    I am ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN that skepticism will prevail. As long as I am a skeptic, I have no doubt … wait… ARGH NOOOOOOO <pops existence=”” of=”” out=””></pops>

  11. says

    I don’t know that it’s different than it ever has been in the past. The advent of web 2.0 interaction has simply made the thought processes of the nut bars far more obvious. That’s probably a good thing, too. It may make you queasy to see how many cockroaches are crawling around your kitchen when you turn on the light, but it makes eliminating them a bit easier.

  12. EdenBunny says

    Yes, but the NG explanation just doesn’t make any logical sense. In order for large numbers of birds to die in such a short time span as a result of flying into things, they would have to all be flying together, like, in FLOCKS or something. And even if they did crash into something, they wouldn’t be killed; the commenter gave an example of what almost always happens to a bird that crashes into the window that is close enough to the ground so that the bird can be seen hitting the ground and flying back up. Why should things be any different if they hit a skyscraper or an electrical line? I mean, it’s not like they would be ever be moving any faster up there, or be likely hit the ground any harder when they landed….-And if it really were a common occurrence, NG would have certainly done an article on it in the past, because there is only a small finite number of possible things that NG could conceivably do an article about, and NG has been around for over 120 years, which is almost forever. Besides, unremarkable things that are always happening make for really interesting articles. Finally, the commenter’s prediction that people will be dropping dead in the streets has already been fulfilled, so it’s time for us to start panicking. Every day, there are people dying in the streets for all sorts of mysterious reasons; somehow being in the street fails to protect them from heart attacks, strokes, traffic accidents, and other things that usually only happen when one is at home in bed.

  13. Gus Snarp says

    This.Sane people don’t feel the need to comment on online news articles to nearly the degree that insane people do, so you can’t make any generalizations about the 1 in 25 in this sample (although I occasionally feel the need to comment on NPR stories, does that make me insane?).

  14. says

    I would like to think that the reason that there were so few rational comments to that article is that us rational, skeptical people would have seen the sense in the article and, not having strong emotions raised, would not be motivated to comment. It is the irrational people who see government conspiracies everywhere who are the first to jump to comment. Of course have no evidence to support this, it is just an untested hypothesis, so take it for what it’s worth.

  15. pjmad says

    This story was especially interesting here in Madison because multiple local/regional papers did stories on the fact that the National Wildlife Health Center is here and nobody realized. Slight differences in the stories led to differences in uninformed comments. The argument that people set off fireworks all the time and thousands of birds don’t die was used mostly by commenters to stories that failed to mention that the Arkansas fireworks were set off in the vicinity of a known roost. Similarly, people remarked that the residents should’ve noticed that the birds were running into things after stories that basically made it seem like the birds mysteriously showed up on the ground the next morning without any disturbance the previous night.It seems that people assume, after reading a short newspaper gloss, that they have the same information (and expertise) as the experts quoted in the article. Thus, the eggheads clearly failed to consider some brilliant/obvious insight that the commenter had after a few minutes reading an incomplete description.

  16. Tuahla says

    But the National Geographic article (or some other article that was debunking all the hype) did mention that in the last half of 2010, there were only about 90 reports of mass animal deaths. So many in such a short period of time would seem to point to something that doesn’t normally happen in nature. It doesn’t have to be such a far-out explanation. Personally, I would believe the magnetic pole is moving would be the most likely of all the far-fetched theories, or it could be a natural phenomena we haven’t discovered yet. (Such as something due to global warming, maybe?)

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