Showers of dead blackbirds air out conspiracy theories
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- The moon turns blood red. The earth shakes. Soldiers die in wars. And the world keeps spinning, even though these events fit neatly into apocalyptic predictions.
So why, when swarms of winged creatures hit the dirt in Arkansas and elsewhere, do some indulge their inner conspiracy theorists and believe more than ever that the end of days is near?
"There's no prophecy in the Bible about the birds falling from the sky," said Bart D. Ehrman, a religious studies professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who sometimes teaches a class called "Apocalypse Now and Then."
But scientific debunking hasn't stopped the speculation since thousands of blackbirds rained down on a small town in Arkansas on New Year's Eve, the first in a series of mass animal deaths that started less than two weeks after a total lunar eclipse.
Hundreds more dead birds have descended on Louisiana, Tennessee and Kentucky, and scores of crowlike birds croaked in Sweden. Add in 100,000 fish that washed ashore in Arkansas and you've got the making of more than a few doomsday scenarios.
People are airing their suspicions online, making "birds fall from sky" and "birds and fish dying" top Google search suggestions for the word "birds."
The talk isn't limited to speculation the world is ending: Some guess it was a UFO. It was the government. It was a government-controlled UFO. (Is there really any other kind?) Lightning did it. It all comes back to the Alfred Hitchcock movie "The Birds." It was the "Angry Birds" game. One spectacularly dumb bird led his feathered compatriots in a fatal plunge.
Scientists have chalked up the deaths of some 5,000 red-winged blackbirds in Beebe, Ark., to fireworks. They say the loud cracks and booms likely sent the birds into such a tizzy that they crashed into homes, cars and each other before plummeting to their deaths.
"I think it's safe to say that there was no secret conspiracy by anyone," said Thurman Booth, a wildlife services director in the state where events kick-started the falling foul trend. "It is not the beginning of the apocalypse. It was not nerve gas. It was not poison. I mean, all these things have been seriously proposed by people all over the world."
For starters, mass wildlife deaths like the bird drop-offs in the South are quite common. In 1973, a hailstorm in Arkansas encased ducks in so much ice they were described as feathery bowling balls.
In general, blackbirds live three years, tops. They roost with thousands, or even millions, of other birds. Simple math dictates that lots of them are going to die, Booth says, and their remains don't vanish into thin air. It's not a biological big deal because red-winged blackbirds are among North America's most abundant birds, with somewhere between 100 million and 200 million across the U.S.
But others say that still doesn't solve the mystery of the birds of Beebe.
"Some people think it's biblical and apocalyptic, and it could be," said Robert Vicino, who heads a California-based company called Vivos that specializes in underground bunkers. (They're complete with access to treadmills, theaters and libraries.)
An Arkansas clothing company saw a chance to capitalize on the conspiracy theories and is offering a shirt starring a yellow bird with X's instead of eyes, for $11.99.
"If you are a bird, even if [your] last name is Bird, I would definitely think about avoiding Beebe for a while," the Rock City Outfitters website says.
Meanwhile, cable networks have called on pundits and celebrities to weigh in on the conundrum of the birds.
"You know, I'm not the religious-conspiracy-theorist go-to guy, particularly," Kirk Cameron of "Growing Pains" fame told CNN's Anderson Cooper. "But I think it's really kind of silly to try to equate birds falling out of the sky with some kind of an end-times theory."
The level of fascination may be new, but birds being seen as augurs is not.
The ancient Romans thought of birds much like tea leaves in a divination class at Hogwarts: They could reveal the future, if interpreted correctly. As a large flock of starlings would fly through the sky like a school of fish, a bird reader called an auspice would translate its movements into terms of things to come, says Douglas Jacobsen, a professor of church history and theology at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa. Romans also caught a few low-fliers to slice open and read their entrails.
"People look to birds," Jacobsen said. "They fly south in the fall and they fly north in the spring. They mark the time in a way that many other animals don't."
Plus, many faiths associate the sky with higher powers.
"Anything that's in the sky that's unusual -- or comes out of the sky that's unusual -- seems to have the potential to be interpreted as a sign from God," Jacobsen said.
Booth, the blackbird guru in Arkansas, said people are hungry nowadays for something to be interested in.
"There's a whole world of people who don't have lives and don't have things to do," he said. "Think about it: There are hungry children, there are wars going on and people are worried about 5,000 blackbirds."