Monday, January 10, 2011

Dying birds

Some people have been getting excited about some unexplained mass avian deaths recently. Thousands of birds apparently dropped dead out of the sky. Could it signal the end of the world? Perhaps not. The likely explanation is much more prosaic: new years fireworks startling sleeping birds into flight leading to disorientation and a fatal collision in the dark.

It may turn out to be something more disturbing and newsworthy than this, but such events need to be kept in context. Human actions kill billions of birds each year, primarily through domestic cats, collisions with buildings and habitat destruction. Our collective activity represents the largest threat to other living things on the planet for millions of years.

Sometimes, we are so keen to find things that are new that we get used to living with ongoing catastrophe.

In other news, six more Australian bird species were recently declared extinct.

15 comments:

craigbenno1 said...

I think the reason goes deeper than just fireworks. It's happened in a few countries and its a phenomenon that has little precedent.

Fireworks have been around for 100's of years and it makes me question why there is no reporting / history of this happening on a regular basis.

Another reason for me to question this comes from my agricultural background and experience. Australian / overseas farmers have been using scare guns on a regular basis to keep their crops free from the ravages of large flocks of birds.

There has been no known deaths caused by such usage.

byron smith said...

Here's a list of recent events (last 12 months) from the USGS. And here is a very incomplete selection of recent mass animal deaths worldwide.

You're right to point out that fireworks is still speculation, but no more plausible theory has come forward so far.

My point was actually not to say that these deaths don't matter (they may actually turn out to be significant signs of something new, though there is nothing specific yet to say that they are), simply to put them into the context of literally billions of bird deaths caused by humans every year (and that's before we even start counting poultry!).

We are so keen to find what might be new that we get used to ongoing catastrophe. (For instance, six more Australian bird species were recently declared extinct).

byron smith said...

PS The "events" I referred to at the start of my previous comment are reported mass animal deaths.

And I'm not ruling out the possibility of other more disturbing causes for these recent deaths that have received a lot of attention, simply trying to place these events in a context that we don't often think about.

I have added some of my previous comment to the end of the post to try to make this clear. Thanks for keeping me on my toes.

byron smith said...

Guardian: UK wild bird situation is also poor and getting worse.

byron smith said...

Many more links to stories about this story.

byron smith said...

In other news, ninety-six more species of frog are now strongly suspected of being extinct:
"The Search for Lost Frogs, organized by Conservation International, the IUCN Amphibian Specialist Group, and Global Wildlife Conservation, involved 126 researchers seeking to document the existence of threatened species.

But after a five-month search, only four out of 100 missing species have been located. Conservationists believe that these shockingly low numbers should be a signal to countries that greater efforts must be taken to protect environmentally sensitive species. Over 30 percent of amphibians are threatened with extinction due to habitat loss and a deadly fungus."

byron smith said...

Mongabay: Yesterday's zoo, a brief animation on biodiversity decline for kids.

byron smith said...

John Vidal: Extinction rate of birds is increasing alarmingly.

byron smith said...

Mongabay: 600-900 species of tropical birds likely to become extinct by the end of the century. Depending on how we go at reducing habitat destruction and climate change, it may be as low as 100 species or as high as 2500. The mid-range estimates represent approx 10-14% of non-migratory tropical bird species.

byron smith said...

Guardian: Starling numbers are down by 80% over the last few decades in the UK.

byron smith said...

Guardian: Nearly 100 bird species face increased risk of extinction in the Amazon.

byron smith said...

Oatmeal: How much do cats actually kill?

byron smith said...

The Conversation: Migratory birds in decline.

byron smith said...

Guardian: NZ businessman: "Neuter your killer ball of fluff".

byron smith said...

Guardian: UK garden birds continue their decline.