‘Aflockalypse’: Huge Bird and Fish Die-off

By Tara Lohan

By now, we’ve all seen the news reports of the “Aflockalypse.” The New Year came in with a bang in Beebe, Arkansas when thousands of blackbirds fell from the sky. As news reports of the eerie incident spread, similar stories began surfacing all over the world: Massive fish kills by the thousands in Brazil, New Zealand, the Arkansas River and the Chesapeake; more bird deaths in Louisiana, Kentucky and Sweden; and tens of thousands of dead crabs (aptly named dead devil crabs) washing ashore in the U.K.

2011 seems to have gotten off to an ominous start, but so far no one credible has come up with a theory to link all these occurrences together. They appear to be mostly isolated catastrophes. Sadly, this kind of stuff happens a fair bit, and in our uber-connected world, it’s getting easier and easier to share when they do. Although I do admit that some of the purported explanations thus far sound kind of far-fetched. The 100 or so dead jackdaws in Sweden were explained by a veterinarian to a local news outlet: “Our main theory is that the birds were scared away because of the fireworks and landed on the road, but couldn’t fly away from the stress and were hit by a car.”

One car? Really? I can’t imagine being the driver who kills 100 birds simultaneously. But the other incidents, perhaps, have better explanations that are largely due to either weather (cold snap) or environmental factors (fireworks, lightening, disease). As for Britain’s crabs—well, it turns out that this is the third year in a row it has happened, which may or may not be comforting, depending on how you look at things.

The only upside to these die-offs has been the rapt attention of readers, which is great; however, no offense to jackdaws and dead devil crabs, but there are a whole lot of other species on the brink that could use the publicity.

For starters, the World Wide Fund for Nature (also known in the U.S. as the World Wildlife Fund) just released its top ten list of endangered species: the tiger, polar bear, Pacific walrus, Magellanic penguin, leatherback turtle, Atlantic bluefin tuna, mountain gorilla, monarch butterfly, Javan rhino and the giant panda are the unlucky finalists. While one night of fireworks revelry may have offed a few thousands birds this year, the creatures on WWF’s list are teetering on the edge of extinction thanks to decades, and in some cases centuries, of hard work by humans.

Loss of habitat and poaching may claim our remaining 3,200 wild tigers, 720 mountain gorillas and 60 Javan rhinos. Polar bears, Pacific walruses and Magellanic penguins are losing out to climate change. We’re doing-in leatherback turtles, which have managed to survive on this earth for 100 million years, thanks to overfishing (they’re often killed as bycatch), and their habitat is endangered by rising sea levels and temperatures. Bluefin look like they will be eaten into extinction in the form of sushi. Treehugger reported that, “A single bluefin tuna just sold at auction for a new record price of 32.49 million yen in Tokyo. That’s nearly $400,000 for a single fish,” which means there is a pretty big monetary incentive for fishing them until they are wiped off the planet. Monarch butterflies and giant pandas can hang on only so long as we can protect their vital habitat.

And these ten are only the tip of the iceberg. A recent infographic on Mother Nature Network reveals that in the last 500 years, 900 species of plants and animals have gone extinct and 10,000 more are close to making that list. We’ve done the most damage, however, in the last 100 years. Biologically rich Ecuador has the most to lose, with 2,211 endangered species, but the U.S. is a close second (1,203 endangered species).

Honeybees aren’t officially designated as endangered, but the population of these essential pollinators is falling thanks to “colony collapse disorder.” A recent leaked EPA memo implicates the pesticide clothianidin as a contributor to honeybee die-offs, although sadly the EPA has yet to curb the chemical’s use in the U.S.

Bumblebees aren’t faring much better, as a recent report concludes that four common species in the U.S. have declined by a startling 97 percent. “According to the Center for Ecology and Hydrology in the UK, three of the 25 British species of bumblebee are already extinct and half of the remainder have shown serious declines, often up to 70 percent, since around the 1970s,” writes Sami Grover for Treehugger. Without these pollinators, we’ll be incredibly short on food.

If you follow the news, it’s likely you’ve heard about the sad state of our bee populations, but I doubt you’re clued into the precarious fate of the Saola. Only discovered in 1992, Saolas are often likened to unicorns, although they have two horns and are found (very rarely) in the mountains of Laos and Vietnam. They are officially designated as “critically endangered,” the last bus stop before extinction.

When you begin to stop and take stock (like here in the IUCN [International Union for Conservation of Nature] Red List web site), it can be overwhelming. We may lose tiny, but hugely important creatures like the half-inch long krill—a fisheries staple—or the ancient and massive gray whale that migrates 10,000 miles a year. And soon, if we are not careful, we may lose entire ecosystems, like the Great Barrier Reef. And life, really and truly, as we know it, will not be the same.

We can do something about this. We can seriously consider what’s pushing so much life on this planet toward extinction—climate change and its myriad manifestations, habitat destruction, pollution, pesticides, poaching, overfishing and hunting, poor management and shortsighted politics.

We can take action now, or we can wait until it starts raining dead birds. Oh wait, that’s already happening. I guess that only leaves us with one choice.

Tara Lohan is a senior editor at AlterNet. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraLohan.

AlterNet, January 7, 2011