So the big news in the blogosphere over the past few days has been the mysterious deaths of thousands of birds in Arkansas. The headline Dead Birds Fall From The Sky makes you want to say, “Well, what else would they do?” Estimates of precisely how many have shuffled off their mortal coils seem to run from about 1000 to 5000 and all points in-between. Until some hapless bugger has to go round collecting and tagging the fallen fledglings it seems we have to rely on eye-witness estimates from people who are typically not used to estimating what constitutes a “dead flock.”
But just like a London omnibus, you wait for years to see a road strewn with avian carcasses and then along comes two at once! With the Arkansas avians not yet counted, another 500 birds have been found dead in Louisiana, close to the False River Regional Airport. Really? Close to airplanes? You mean those large, 3000 ton pieces of metal that fly hundreds of miles per hour, causing huge wakes that can suck up, say, birds? Well no shit, Sherlock!
The Arkansas victims appear to have suffered severe trauma, according to specialists, which resulted in internal bleeding and ultimately death. Non-specialists – that is, conspiracy theorists, religious nutcases, paranoid schizophrenics armed with a blog site, and Fox News viewers – prefer to accept the evidence of their own minds and opt for the culprits being any one of the following; God, Mayans, UFOs, Men in Black, government secret testing, phosgene gas, or the magneto-acoustic-gravity-wavelet weapon.
The one word that crops up in almost all the versions of this story is mystery. And the cause of the birds’ deaths is currently as mysterious as the time at which the next bus will arrive. Both are, as the OED explains, “something inexplicable or beyond human comprehension.”
Curiously, some people take that notion of being “inexplicable” as carte-blanche for making up an explanation that is even more inexplicable than the original event! For them, the notion that, for example, the birds were caught in high velocity storm winds seems so improbable that they prefer to accept that they ran into an invisible UFO. Actually, those folks tend to make it sound more scientific by using the word “cloaked” to describe the UFO, and then go on to use a glut of pseudo-scientific babble to “explain” how cloaking works. And hey, if it works for the Klingon Birds of Prey spaceships, it must be true.
In Ancient Greece, the word μυστήριον is used to describe secret religious ceremonies, the most famous of which is probably those held at Eleusis, some 15 miles northwest of Athens, in honor of the goddess Demeter. Demeter was associated with fertility and harvest, so the Eleusinian Mysteries seem to have been aimed at ensuring that farmers would have a good growing season.
Many years after the mysteries of Ancient Greece Sir Arthur Conan Doyle began writing about the mysteries of Sherlock Holmes. In the Sign of Four, Holmes says, “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” For solving mysteries, this would seem to be a very useful rule of thumb. Unfortunately, conspiracy theorists have reworked this along the lines of, “when you have eliminates the improbable, whatever remains, no matter how impossible, must be the truth.” So in the current bird-death mystery, one theory put forward was that the birds had been damaged during a New Year’s firework display, which is at least a testable hypothesis. However, because it seems very improbable that 5000 birds could be affected by a few fireworks, lots of commentators have eliminated the improbable and taken this as proof for God, Mayans, UFOs, Men in Black, government secret testing, phosgene gas, and the magneto-acoustic-gravity-wavelet weapon.
It is, of course, probable that no answer will be found. Mysteries happen every day and it’s only because of the way in which the global media can act as a focusing lens for a single incident that we hear about them. Out of the billions of slices of toast made in a month, what are the chances that ONE of them might have a burn pattern that looks a little like the virgin Mary? And if just ONE person gets a picture of this, how easy is it to post this to the world?
Doubtless in a week or so, there will be an official response that provides a reasonable theory as to why, like the ball in Times Square, the birds dropped over the New Year. But equally, those who have already made their minds up will find ways to ignore it and shore up their present erroneous theory. After all, if everybody loves a mystery, then no-one will like a spoil-sport who ruins it.