Seems like you can’t swing a dead…um, strike that. It’s hard to miss the wave of news coverage of late concerning the mysterious die-offs of flocks of birds (in two Southern U.S. states). And then there’s that slightly earlier, mass fish kill (all one species), not far away, coming just a short time before the red-winged blackbird die-off. And yesterday (Wednesday) we learned of a smaller, bird die-off (of jackdaws) in Sweden. And this event occurred close in time to another reported fish kill (all snappers) on several Coromandel Peninsula beaches, in New Zealand.
Such animal die-offs or mass “kills” are fairly common. According to the USGS database, there have been 16 large, blackbird die-offs, in contained areas, in the last 20 years.
And remember the mass beachings of dead dolphins on the East Coast of the U.S. back in the late 1980’s, or more recently (2008-09), the die-off of honey bees in the U.S. (actually, there were two, the first occurring in 2006)? And there have been plenty more over the years that our news-saturated brains have allowed us to forget.
The causes are varied. Many as yet undetermined will be found to be natural or expected. Bee-keepers will tell you that a seasonal die-off of 30% of their bees is common (note: Colony Collapse Disease has been attributed to a combo viral and fungal infection). Marine biologist will site numerous, world-wide beachings of dead (or dying) whales and dolphins going back decades. Some of these more recent ones have been attributed to submarine sonar, while others may have resulted from diseases (like viruses) that spread (just like in human populations) by contagion through the pod.
Still, what has made these latest ones so sensational (apart from the news coverage and mysterious causes) has been their timing and frequency. Rarely, it seems, have so many bird die-offs and fish kills occurred so close together in time, and now, with the Sweden bird die-off (of jackdaws), so geographically dispersed.
I doubt that things will continue at the current pace/rate, but at the same time, I suspect that these events will most likely become more common — for these reasons, others, and because as public interest increases, they will be reported more often, and the chances of spotting a new “spree”, or series of closely timed events, will increase.
Of the causes that have a known human origin, some are accidental (e.g., fireworks, power lines), while with others, human negligence is the cause (pollution releases, toxin dumping, etc.). There will be events resulting from a combination of natural and human-made causes. And, some will remain completely unknown.
On this subject of unknown causes, I will here re-introduce the term I used in my post’s title: Fortean.
“Fortean” refers to all things “strange, sudden, and unexpected” in Nature, but especially those involving animals and large numbers, such as frog or insect plagues, live spider and fish “rains” (yes, that’s right), elephant stampedes/hysteria, and bird/fish die-offs. Also included here are “freak weather” and rare atmospheric events, strange artifacts and ancient “miraculous” events. In general, such material is known as Forteana.
The term derives from one Charles H. Fort (August 6, 1874 – May 3, 1932), a naturalist and writer, whose copious notes on Nature’s oddities and anomalies, its collective, bizarre behaviors and sudden, mass occurrences, would launch a cultural fascination (perhaps even a movement) that would find its greatest expression, 60 years after his death, with the enormously popular X Files television series.
Though a student of science, Fort found his researches relegated to the very fringes of acceptable science. Scientists were usually dismissive of his claims to anomalous forces at work in Nature, which naturally made the anti-authoritarian Fort just as dismissive of them. He was often depressed and several times destroyed his manuscripts and voluminous notes (often kept on scraps of paper or loose note cards). Some of these notes were collected and later published in slim, popular books read by grade-schoolers (this author being one of them).
Fort was the author of some ten novels, most dabbling in science-fiction (usually with malevolent forces at work behind the scenes), but it was a “non-fiction” work, The Book of the Damned (1919), that brought him notoriety. The “damned” in the book’s title refers to “damned” (dismissed) data — unexplained data collected by Fort in his travels and which was soundly rejected (or ignored) by the scientists of his day.
Fort’s writing style was quite unique, with many readers finding it cumbersome, sometimes poetic, and often a bit confusing (skipping from one idea to the next, without finishing either, sometimes seeming to contradict his own theories). He would typically proceed by ridiculing the scientific “explanations” (or claims to absolute knowledge) as a pretext for offering his own novel theories, but then later, seemed to reverse his own conclusions, as if afraid of becoming too sure, too smug, like the scientists he disdained (though he also admired them to some degree).
Fort helped popularize so-called paranormal phenomenon — concepts like levitation, remote viewing, spontaneous combustion, poltergeists, vanishings, out of place artifacts, teleportation — a term originated by Fort — and was perhaps the first to offer the theory of “alien abduction” as a cause of unexplained disappearances.
Fort, despite the rejection of many of his theories as pseudoscience, actually made a few important contributions to the philosophy of science. He often noted that there was a sociological factor biasing what science deemed acceptable or unacceptable. Further, he would often point out that a repeated experiment would sometimes produce completely different results (and even validate two opposing theories!). His criticisms of the scientific method* would lead later researchers to acknowledge the “experimenter effect“, the tendency for experiments to validate the preconceptions of the experimenters.
Charles Fort was a “patron of cranks” (Wilson), a hunter of anomalies, and a tireless compiler of Nature’s oddities. His thinking was heavily influenced by Freud and he readily acknowledged that some people had a deep psychological need to believe in marvels, just as some had a deep need to disbelieve in them. To Fort, neither was more/less gullible (or foolish) than the other.
Perhaps above all, in his championing of the unorthodox over the orthodox, his name has become almost synonymous with the Anomalous — that which defies easy scientific explanation. His name has come to indicate also a rejection of all authority — scientific, religious, historical and political.
Today, Fort’s name lives on; we have the venerable Fortean Times (a really fun and yes, informative, read), which has been on-line almost since day one (and publishing since 1973), and, there is also INFO (the International Fortean Organization) which inherited some of Fort’s writings and has published some of Fort’s stories/notes posthumously.
Were he alive today, Fort would no doubt be amused, and perhaps pleased, with the plethora of cable TV shows offering investigations of the unknown, the paranormal and the super natural…unless, these shows, in their own way, became too authoritative; in which case, he would no doubt reject their metaphysical postulates, and offer a few theories of his own.
To Fort, the ideal mind state was neither to be a true believer, nor a total skeptic, for “the truth lies somewhere in between.”
* Fort did not reject the scientific method, but thought it should be held up to greater scrutiny.
1. Over 3,000 Birds Mysteriously Die, Fall from Sky in Arkansas
2. More Possible Explanations for Mass Bird Deaths, Birds Falling from Sky
3. Birds Fall from the Sky in More Places
4. Mass Bird & Fish Deaths Caused by Hydraulic Fracking & Earthquakes?
Top photo: (dead snappers) Geoff Dale, NZ Herald
Second photo: (dead blackbird) video frame capture from video (Yahoo News item), unknown author.
Fort photo and painting: public domain