A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Has the Aflockalypse Begun?

What are the recent mass deaths of animals really telling us?

By Michael Mountain

Like “refudiate” and “retweet” before it, the word “Aflockalypse” has winged its way overnight into the English language.

In less than a week, it caught on all over the world as people flocked to the latest news of birds mysteriously falling out of the sky, wondering what it might portend.

The end of the world is probably not quite yet. Renowned conservationist E. O. Wilson is one of the many scientists who point out that the number of birds falling out of the sky, along with fish and crabs washing up on the shores, is not unusual; it’s just that we’re hearing about it more.

But we’re not just hearing about it; our reaction to what we’re hearing is a very real part of the phenomenon, too. Something about this series of strange events has struck a chord – which is why the word has caught on the way it has.

As of now, we’re talking about, most recently:

5,000 red-winged blackbirds falling out of the sky in Beebe, Arkansas

500 dead birds, including starlings and blackbirds, found next to a highway in Baton Rouge, Louisiana

200 American coots found on a highway in Big Cypress Creek, Texas

100,000 drum fish found dead on a 17-mile stretch of an Arkansas river

40,000 crabs washed ashore near Margate, England

50 jackdaws falling to the ground in Sweden

Hundreds of dead snapper washed ashore in New Zealand

More than 1,000 turtle doves and pigeons lying dead on the ground in Italy. Most of them had a blue tinge on their beaks, which scientists say suggests poisoning or hypoxia – a lack of oxygen. So far, no one has been able to account for this.

Explanations overall range from the very bland (“It’s not unusual; this happens regularly”) through the more complex (the icy weather, fireworks and pesticides) to the fringe (government conspiracy, the Mayan calendar and the fulfillment of biblical prophecy).

One theory holds that it has something to do with the shift in the magnetic North Pole, which could be causing birds to lose their sense of direction and become disoriented. The magnetic poles do a complete switch once every 250,000 years and we may be in the middle of one of those events right now. In 1904 the pole had begun moving at 9 miles a year, but since 2007 it has moved at least 35 miles a year, and now it is up to 40. (In Florida, the Tampa airport has closed its primary runway until January 13 to repaint the numeric designators because of the shift in the magnetic north pole.)

Another theory brings the matter closer to home: It is that we are seeing one of the effects of the Gulf oil disaster. BP has already acknowledged that much of the spilled oil evaporated into the atmosphere, along with chemicals from the toxic dispersants. If the “Aflockalypse” is due to oil and chemicals in the air, we could be seeing one of the early long-term impacts. This theory could also account for the deaths of birds in Italy suffering from oxygen deprivation.

The fact is we simply don’t know what’s going on. But if the world itself is not ending, the world that we grew up in is surely changing. There’s a growing sense of foreboding that some of our chickens are coming home to roost, and that we’re beginning to reap some of the damage we’ve sown. And while that doesn’t explain why birds are falling out of the sky, it does explain why we find ourselves jumping on events like these and getting a little anxious over whether something larger is in the offing.

In fact, birds falling out of the sky, while sad for the birds, is small potatoes compared to what else is going on around the nation and beyond:

Little brown bats are vanishing by the millions due to a fungal infection, and unless some dramatic reversal takes place, they will be extinct within 20 years. This isn’t just bad news for the bats; it’s bad for us. Bats keep the insect population in check and without them there may be disastrous effects on crops and other plant life.

Also, for several years now, bees have been ravaged by colony collapse disorder. Bees pollinate the crops, and we can’t live successfully without them.

Entire species are going extinct at a rate that sometimes stretches into the hundreds per day. (The numbers vary; no one knows for sure.) And overall, we’re suffering what the United Nations calls a “massive” loss in our eco-systems all over the world.

That’s the real Aflockalypse, and if it’s not the end of the world, it’s almost certainly the end of the “we-can-get-away-with-doing-anything-to-the Earth” way of life that we’ve known for the last couple of centuries.

Much of the damage is already done, and we and the other animals are going to have to live with it. Much more will be unfolding over the coming years. And every day that we don’t act to stop ravaging the Earth and the animals is just adding to the eerie and alarming scenes that we’re beginning to see all around us.

See Michael’s article: Shakespeare, Starlings and the Aflockalypse