By Tom Leonard In New York
Last updated at 7:45 AM on 7th January 2011
There is talk of secret government experiments with death rays, collisions with UFOs, a demagnetised Earth’s core — and even the Second Coming of Christ.
It’s not the first occasion that America has been well and truly spooked by a series of bizarre occurrences, but is there reason to be worried this time?
The fish died first, with an estimated 85,000 carnivorous drum fish being washed up along a 17-mile stretch of the Arkansas River last Thursday. Local experts could not recall a time when so many had died so suddenly and, because it was confined to just one species, blamed disease.
|Flock: Mass bird deaths (above, in Louisiana) within days of each other have baffled experts, with some blaming fireworks for confusing the birds or parasites.|
Just before the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, thousands of birds started to rain down on the small town of Beebe, Arkansas.
Up to 5,000 red-winged blackbirds fell in a short stretch no more than 800 yards wide, sprinkling roads, rooftops and lawns. In some places, the ground was turned almost black.
Terrified residents hurried indoors as the tiny creatures thudded down around them.
|Apocalypse how? Locator map showing dead wildlife in USA, New Zealand, Sweden, England and Brazil|
One hit a woman walking her dog, while another resident had to use an umbrella to protect herself. Local man Shane Roberts said it sounded like hail pelting on his roof. ‘I turn and look across my yard and there’s all these lumps,’ he said.
Milton McCullar, the town’s street department supervisor, said: ‘It was like a scene out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie.’ He didn’t need to spell out which film. The emergency switchboard lit up as everyone rang in alarm.
‘Some of them were a little panicked, they thought it was the end of the world,’ said Eddie Cullum, the local police chief.
The residents’ unease only increased when environmental clean-up workers turned up wearing white hazardous suits, helmets and gas masks to clear away the birds
Officials initially blamed high-altitude hail or lightning hitting the birds. Then preliminary lab tests concluded they had died from ‘multiple blunt force trauma’, implying they had flown into something. (Their stomachs were empty, ruling out poison.)
The prime suspect was New Year fireworks, which could have startled the birds from their roosts and send them crashing into houses, trees and each other. But fireworks go off every New Year. Why hadn’t this happened before?
Dan Cristol, an academic and co-founder of the Institute for Integrative Bird Behaviour Studies, said he found it difficult to blame fireworks unless ‘somebody blew something into the roost, literally blowing the birds into the sky’.
John Fitzpatrick, director of Cornell University’s ornithology laboratory, suggested the birds might have been sucked up by a ‘washing machine type thunderstorm’ that then spat them back out on to the ground.
|Carnage: Thousands of dead fish have washed up on the shores of Spruce Creek,Florida|
|The plot thickens: Rescue chief Christer Olofsson holds a dead bird in Falkoping, Sweden. Dozens of jackdaws were found dead on the street|
Other experts still cling to the weather theory. Michio Kaku, a physics professor in New York, said the deaths could have been caused by a flock being hit by a ‘microburst’ — a sudden, fierce downdraft of wind that have been known to bring down airliners.
The U.S. Geological Survey has said it knew of 16 cases over the past 20 years of large numbers of blackbirds dying at once. Investigators admit they may never discover what happened, but are certain the birds and the fish are not connected.
‘We just think it’s a rather strange coincidence,’ said LeAnn White, a wildlife disease specialist at the U.S. Geological Survey. If only the deaths had ended there, most people might have swallowed the ‘coincidence’ theory.
But then something happened which sent a shiver down American spines. On Monday, some 500 birds — mainly starlings and blackbirds — were found dead 300 miles south, along a highway in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. They showed signs of internal injuries and blood clots, and the official explanation was they had probably flown into power lines.
Soon after, wildlife officials in Kentucky reported several hundred birds had been found dead in the western part of the state.
And then, on Wednesday, it emerged that an estimated two million more fish had been found dead in the Chesapeake Bay on America’s East Coast.
The local environment department blamed ‘cold water stress’, when the
|Creepy: Thousands of dead drum fish were also discovered|
just miles away lining the shores of the Arkansas River
ocean is too cold for the fish to survive in. But that couldn’t explain the thousands of dead fish found floating in a creek in Port Orange, Florida. There had been cold weather, said puzzled locals, but that had been a week ago.
With the spotlight on deceased animals, more and more cases are turning up — and not just in America. In Sweden, about 100 jackdaws have been found dead in the road in the southern city of Falkoping. A lorry driver claimed he ran them over, but police said most birds had shown no signs of damage.
Many Americans don’t believe the official line at the best of times, and the burgeoning ranks of conspiracy theorists have found themselves spoilt for choice in picking a reason for these animal deaths.
Dead birds raining out of the sky and rivers of dead fish are the stuff of apocalyptic visions, and in a country where 41 per cent of people believe that Jesus will return by 2050, some see the hand of God and the Biblical ‘End of Days’ in all this.
Internet keyword searches in the U.S. have soared for the likes of ‘dead fish and Bible’ and ‘dead fish and birds and Revelation’.
Pastors on Christian internet forums have been busy answering questions about whether what the Washington Post scathingly dubbed the ‘Aflockalypse’ really does signal the beginning of the Great Tribulation mentioned in Revelation as the prelude to the final battle of Armageddon between good and evil.
Even before the wildlife started dying, an alliance of Christian groups was spreading the word that the end of the world will begin on May 21 this year. This is a date that’s been calculated by Harold Camping, a Californian preacher, based on his reading of the Bible.
James Manning, a controversial pastor in Harlem, New York, has dubbed the animal deaths ‘Global Katrina 2’ in reference to the New Orleans hurricane, and blamed ‘biological warfare’. He’s certain ‘we are in the period referred to as the Tribulation’, and that the Bible makes clear this pre-Apocalypse period will be about environmental catastrophe rather than war.
|Gruesome: New Year revellers watched in horror as the birds rained down on houses and cars in Beebe|
Those who favour the End of the World theory have also cited the Ancient Mayan calendar, which runs out next year, another signpost to approaching Armageddon.
Add that to the fact that bird behaviour has been studied since Roman times for clues to the future. As with the canary in the coalmine, the birds are on to something earlier than the rest of us.
Hollywood sci-fi films have also been plundered for supporting evidence that something sinister is happening. Some have flagged up the Mel Gibson film Signs, in which birds were seen flying into invisible UFOs
|Mystery: A starling lies along the Morganza Highway in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana. Experts said hundreds of birds may have died after hitting power lines|
Some suspicious minds — reportedly including the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez — believe the project’s research instruments are death rays that can excite electrons in the ionosphere and so create earthquakes, storms and power failures.
Others have wheeled out another popular conspiracy theory — known as ‘chemtrails’ — which claims that aircraft vapour trails are chemical agents that are being sprayed at high altitude as part of a secret government programme. It might explain the birds, but the fish, too?
Another idea is that the New Madrid Fault earthquake zone — an area covering much of the U.S. mid-west and south, including Arkansas and Louisiana — is coming to life.
Those still yearning for other culprits can take their pick from pesticides, or toxins released into the air by the start of major natural gas drilling operations in Arkansas.
All have their supporters on the internet.
|Thousands of them: Crabs washed up at Palm Bay, Margate, are thought to have died of hypothermia |
The UN Environment Programme yesterday played down Apocalyptic explanations, but said more research was needed into mass animal deaths.
‘Science is struggling to explain these things,’ said a spokesman. ‘These are examples of the surprises that nature can still bring. More research is needed.’
Greg Butcher, director of bird conservation at the National Audubon Society, the U.S. equivalent of the RSPB, said he was enjoying the speculation so much he ‘feels guilty’ debunking it — claiming that, in fact, fireworks are the most likely answer.
But he agrees with the conspiracy theorists on one point — the importance of not ignoring birds.
‘They can be good indicators of environmental problems in telling us something is wrong, so I’d hate to think that 5,000 would die and nobody would care,’ he said.
Just now, with the internet humming and preachers announcing an imminent Armageddon, there doesn’t seem to be any danger of that.