As above, so below: Investigating the cataclysm of an unusual and concerning global avian death crisis

With avian influenza and sudden mass flock deaths spurring, we worry for the birds of the world; what are the implications?

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Bob Gunderson

With the recent mass death of yellow blackbirds in Mexico last week, the question of avian safety and behavior arises.

Jasmin Parrado, Staff Writer

Since the beginning of time, birds have unknowingly served as signals of the natural world’s very ways. Their abandonments and behaviors have shown us how to live despite the harsh judgment of our surroundings; they’ve spread the seeds of life, fed those that succeed the energy within their wings, and above all, they have flown with the wind, away from the storms that visit our skies, telling us where to run and what to run away from.

But what happens when a flock falls? What happens when a storm is not a brewing cloud of thunderous and recognizable cold showers, but instead, something unbeknownst to the likes of both ourselves and the birds that fly above us?

What gives when a storm is silent?

I have often wondered about the current conditions that plague our world; the multitude of environmental crises overlapping one another in the agreement of an underlying chaos within the earth. But until recently, I hadn’t given much thought to the more intense impact that such chaos would inflict—not upon birds, at least.

Perhaps it was an innate belief, an unspoken yet collective understanding that birds were invincible in some way that we weren’t. Maybe as a little girl, I believed that what we lacked deemed us contracted to the fate of the ground that we were gravitated to since the beginning of life. Birds have wings; we don’t. I thought that if they could fly, then they could more easily evade the violence and peculiarities of natural events. Perhaps, they could escape the more unforgiving and unexplainable ways of nature.

Of course, I was obviously wrong. I just didn’t think it would end up looking this way.

2022 has arrived with a new concern as of late. Bird deaths and illnesses have accelerated in an ominous nature that prompts many to point to a presumably unprecedented natural force—something unknown that we don’t quite have a grip over.

On the morning of February 7th, Cuauhtémoc, a city in northern Mexico, found itself in awe over such an event: an entire flock of yellow-headed blackbirds plummeted to their deaths in a collective swoop, descending over house roofs and neighborhood streets in one concentrated direction. Hundreds upon hundreds of the carcasses were found scrambled along the ground in heaps before a graphic video recording of the phenomenon was released and spread across various media platforms. Controversies and disparages over the reason for the blackbirds’ deaths ranged from a possible mass electrocution to suspicions of downward directional pressure in the process of outflying a predatory bird. One common suspicion was that of a harmful airborne toxin infiltrating the birds’ systems; a more concerning situation to be reviewed.

Before delving into the commotion of avian deaths, I was a stranger to the mention of the very issue; my concerns with environmental and scientific matters under investigation did not seem to splice the topic of bird behaviors within its radar of recent happenings, but I was open to conversation when my mother brought it to my attention.

Last Thursday, she was on her way to East Lake High School to see me; a long, straining day had finally reached its end and I was out of rehearsal. She began a phone conversation with me through the car’s Bluetooth speaker, casually driving away the mile on East Lake Road and recalling the news coverage of the incident in Cuauhtémoc, Mexico, when she paused mid-talk and gasped.

I waited a beat; I was worried, and I asked her what had happened.

She proceeded to break the silence. “Oh my God,” She said. “What is this? The birds. The birds are dying.”

It was after a moment of her regaining her train of thought that she proceeded to tell me how in the midst of her driving, she had just watched two birds plummet straight to their deaths toward the grass median of the road, just a few ways from East Lake Church. They had struck the ground in an eerily similar fashion as the flock in Cuauhtémoc; one bird had tumbled immediately, already dead, while another was still weakly scrambling for the last few seconds of its life on the road, where it would die shortly thereafter.

The scene deeply disturbed my mother; she had never seen anything so spontaneous take place. When we met up and decided to circle back to that area in her car, someone had already taken care to move both of the birds into the respective safety of the median. We briefly grieved for the birds before trudging back to the car and processing the strange series of events.

My mother scrambled to contact the Environmental Protection Agency; she suspected something was amiss—something that could possibly endanger the protected bald eagles that currently inhabit East Lake. It was better to be safe than sorry, and we sought to at least report the creepy coincidence, all to at least ensure that whatever investigation ensued would perhaps not entirely exclude the possibility of an environmental factor being responsible for the random avian deaths.

This spur of events got me thinking: what could spark such a strange eruption of events? Sure, experts suggest that power lines or predators are commonalities, but I felt that in light of this phenomenon, more needed to be brought to awareness regarding issues with avian illness and death, just in case. Just in case it’s neither conspired robot-birds causing the chaos, nor a “drink the Kool-Aid” devastation. Just in case more bird species need to worry. Just in case we need to worry.

Let’s review what we know for certain regarding avian deaths and epidemics:

New reports of an avian influenza strain confirmed in Central Florida

Multiple bird deaths have been reported throughout the sunshine state; recently, WFTV 9 ABC News reported the confirmation of the HPAI strain found within bird carcasses in Central Florida. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) suspects that bird deaths in the Volusia, Brevard, and Indian River county areas are occurring as a direct result of this HPAI strain’s rapid spread.

According to FWC, the first signs of this strain were found at the beginning of this year, within a blue-winged teal that had been hunted back in Palm Beach County.

Precautions within the counties have been implemented, ranging from zoo closures to official public word on preventing further spread of the illness. As this investigation ensues in wake of the literal drop-dead situation, a general notice is to be remembered concerning handling any avian:

-Do not touch dead or sick animals; they may be carrying or dying from such a flu, and one’s exposure to bodily fluids or parts that might hold the strain can potentially pose detrimental consequences for other living beings. If you find that you must hold or touch one in any instance, wear protective clothing or gloves, and then proceed to handle the body accordingly.

-Follow hygienic protocols and standards; drop-offs and remains of infectious components might exist in the aftermath of avian activities and deaths, even upon objects and sessile organisms.

-Bird owners must take responsibility for ensuring that their birds are safe; steps to maintain a bird’s wellness despite their circumstances can help keep down the number of avian deaths and reduce case-referential considerations.

Potential Spread of Bird Flu to Pinellas County

As of late, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Virginia, and Kentucky have seen positive cases within the birds, which gets me thinking: is this illness directly responsible for the abrupt and shocking bird deaths we had personally seen earlier? If so, this gives much cause for concern.

Recall that the Bald Eagle species is specially protected through federal statutes; it might be of least concern with endangerment, but that can very well change given the speed of the flu’s spread in Pinellas County.

If you ever capture or observe a random and unwarranted avian mortality, be sure to report it as soon as possible so that further investigation can be initiated in response. Remember: you can possibly preserve more bird lives by making a call or writing an email embedded with proper evidence to inform biologists and epidemiologists of what they’re working with.

When tying these various events together, the bird flu seems to be a major possibility for a better explanation as to why we see what we see nowadays. Let us hope that proper preservation of avian lives is implemented in a good portion of Florida, so that our flying friends can better evade the potential of a shorter-arriving fate in wake of the avian influenza’s eruption throughout the state.