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Photo by Allison Klein, USGS

A couple of weeks ago, people in Arkansas and Louisiana watched as hundreds of birds came falling from the sky, motionless and dead.

One bird kill occurred on New Year’s Eve, which was readily accepted as a bad omen for some.  Even I can admit: a showering of dead birds isn’t the best way to welcome a new year.

As conspiracy theories and apocalyptic fears amassed, reports revealed that the birds died of impact trauma, perhaps from hitting power lines or another large object.

But, ultimately, we were missing context.  Sure, we look to wildlife as an indicator of the general health of the environment, but this news story reminded me of something else: how little I knew about the world around me.

For most — myself included — relationships between local environmental agencies and the public  are often trying, especially when the two meet to discuss land and privilege compromises. As someone who communicates science and is studying how to do so effectively, I was reminded of this lacking relationship.

I wondered: We’re constantly learning about exotic and endangered species in tropical rain forests and mountains, but what about the happenings in our own backyards?

The reality is that these die-offs were hardly different from any others, yet they received hefty coverage because they happened on the last night of the year or shortly after. (By the way, James Gorman wrote an interesting piece in The New York Times, highlighting our tendency to hope for the supernatural).

Dead birds aside, it was a wakeup call for me to slow down and learn about what’s happening in my surroundings. I also think it demonstrates the need to fund and support more public outreach — for both children and adults — from the public agencies that work with natural resources.

Personally, I’m still surprised by the ubiquity of these events in the first place. They happen relatively often without the average person keeping track. Am I not keeping up with my community well enough — to know what’s normal ecologically, at least? Is it our responsibility to seek information or expect others to provide it?

I certainly don’t know how to achieve this balance, but think it’s crucial to think about.

If you’re interested in looking at bird kill data, here’s a link from the USGS Wildlife Health Center in Madison.


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About Me

Marianne is a science communicator working in Madison, Wis.

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