Wildlife deaths odd?

Mass ca­su­al­ties aren’t un­com­mon, ex­perts say.

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAR­RYL FEARS fearsd@wash­post.com

It’s death on a wide scale, bib­li­cal-type stuff: Mil­lions of spot fish died last week in the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay; red-winged black­birds tum­bled from the skies by the thou­sands in Arkansas and Ken­tucky over the hol­i­days; and tens of thou­sands of po­gies, drum fish, crab and shrimp went belly up in the sum­mer in a Louisiana bayou.

For an ex­pla­na­tion of these mys­te­ri­ous events, some have turned to Scrip­ture or to the Mayan cal­en­dar, which sug­gests the world will end in 2012. But wildlife ex­perts say these mas­sive wildlife kills were not the re­sult of a man-made dis­as­ter or a spooky sign of the apoc­a­lypse.

They hap­pen in na­ture all the time.

In Arkansas, state and fed­eral bi­ol­o­gists say they think that sleep­ing birds prob­a­bly heard a loud boom in the night and freaked out. In Louisiana, low-oxy­gen ocean wa­ter reg­u­larly creeps into the higher-oxy­gen bayou and suf­fo­cates fish and crus­taceans.

Mary­land wildlife bi­ol­o­gists are still in­ves­ti­gat­ing the deaths of 2 mil­lion spot and some croaker, also known as drum fish. But they have a the­ory: These fish are par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble to cold and were killed when wa­ter tem­per­a­tures dropped sud­denly and sharply in late De­cem­ber. Most of the dead were ju­ve­niles.

“It’s colder than it’s been in 25 years,” said Dawn Stoltz­fus, a spokes­woman for the Mary­land Depart­ment of the En­vi­ron­ment. That’s ter­ri­ble news for the spot. In 1976, 15 mil­lion were killed dur­ing a cold snap.

The depart­ment’s phones started ring­ing with re­ports of dead fish two days be­fore the new year and haven’t stopped. “ The first ones we heard of were in Calvert County. Then some big ones over the last week­end in An­napo­lis and Kent Is­land. It could be over. It’s too early to spec­u­late,” Stoltz­fus said.

The state doesn’t bother to clean up. Na­ture takes its course when fish wash up on shore, which be­gan to hap­pen Thurs­day, or birds pluck them from the wa­ter. “ The best thing to do if you come across them is to not touch them, and bury them,” Stoltz­fus said, in ad­vice to bay­side res­i­dents.

In Arkansas, “5,000 birds fall­ing dead in peo­ple’s yards is just weird,” said Kevin McGowan, an or­nithol­o­gist at the Cor­nell Lab of Or­nithol­ogy. “But the ques­tion is, has this hap­pened be­fore?”

The an­swer is yes, “ but prob­a­bly in a corn­field. And foxes ate them all,” McGowan said.

“All birds die,” he con­tin­ued. “You rarely see them for sev­eral rea­sons. They’re usu­ally alone. They’re of­ten eaten by the thing that killed them, or they go to some shel­tered place to die. You rarely see dead birds un­til they whack into your win­dow.”

When birds fall out the sky and fish float to the sur­face as if in a night­mare, peo­ple reach for an ex­pla­na­tion. At least one In­ter­net blog­ger cited the Mayan cal­en­dar, and an­other turned to the dooms­day prophe­cies of Nostradamus.

Oth­ers be­lieve hu­mans are re­spon­si­ble. Peo­ple have been known to throw poi­sonous food to birds, and work­ers have il­le­gally dumped pes­ti­cides into storm sew­ers, such as in the District in 2000, which led to the largest recorded fish kill in Rock Creek Park. A Sil­ver Spring ex­ter­mi­na­tion com­pany was charged in the crime.

Large man-made dis­as­ters have taken an enor­mous toll, such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska’s Prince Wil­liam Sound and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mex­ico.

But nat­u­ral dis­eases such as avian bot­u­lism and cholera stalk birds as they nest in enor­mous colonies, killing thou­sands. Bac­te­ria that lurk near fish and am­phib­ians of­ten take lives.

The red-winged black­birds in Arkansas were prob­a­bly asleep when they heard a loud boom from a high-in­ten­sity fire­work shriek­ing through their tree roost. As it hap­pens in such cases, the birds went nuts, said Carol Meteyer, a vet­eri­nary pathol­o­gist for the Na­tional Wildlife Health Cen­ter, a di­vi­sion of the U.S. Ge­o­log­i­cal Ser­vice.

“ They fly dis­ori­ented and crash,” Meteyer said. “Bird re­ac­tions are en­demic. One bird re­acts, and the other freaks out. And on it goes. I wouldn’t say it hap­pens all the time. I’ve been here 20 years. You see them oc­cur once in 10 years, but they hap­pen.”

Sev­eral hun­dred red-winged black­birds were killed when they flew into power lines in Louisiana this month, Meteyer said. About the same time, Ken­tucky game of­fi­cials said sev­eral hun­dred dead red-winged black­birds, grack­les, star­lings and a few robins were scat­tered about in Mur­ray, Ky., near the cam­pus of Mur­ray State Uni­ver­sity. Tests showed no dis­eases or tox­ins, said Mark Mar­rac­cini, a spokesman for the Ken­tucky Depart­ment of Fish and Wildlife Re­sources.

In March 1996, a bliz­zard hit the Platte River in Ne­braska as more than half a mil­lion sand­hill cranes nested at the peak of their mi­gra­tion. In the biggest known kill of the cranes, birds driven by high winds flew beak-first into trees and build­ings dur­ing a failed at­tempt to out­race the bliz­zard. More than 2,000 died.

On the ocean, “ there are wrecks of pelagic birds, birds that never come to shore,” Meteyer said. “ Thou­sands upon thou­sands can die be­cause of no food source. They have no body fat, no dis­ease. Star­va­tion hap­pens out there.” She added that some­times the pop­u­la­tions of fish they feed on go too deep be­cause the sur­face wa­ter is too hot.

The dif­fer­ence be­tween most wildlife kills and the deaths in the Ch­e­sa­peake and Arkansas, Louisiana and Ken­tucky is that peo­ple were not aware that they hap­pened, Meteyer said. “ The dif­fer­ence is the me­dia. They are get­ting more no­to­ri­ety. But I don’t think they are more fre­quent than in the past,” she said.

The Louisiana kill was hard to ig­nore. In Bayou Cha­land in Plaque­m­ines Parish, tens of thou­sands of sil­very fish bel­lies shim­mered un­der the sun. Pho­to­graphs of the fish clog­ging a corner of the bayou in the af­ter­math of the BP oil spill were dra­matic.

But the event wasn’t con­nected to the spill and was not un­usual. Robert Barham, sec­re­tary of the state Depart­ment of Wildlife and Fish­eries, said a drop in dis­solved oxy­gen lev­els caused ei­ther by die-offs of mi­croor­gan­isms or a sud­den up­welling of low-oxy­gen wa­ter from the deep sea prob­a­bly killed the fish.

It’s hap­pened in the past, long be­fore the spill off Louisiana’s gulf coast. In some ar­eas, low-oxy­gen pock­ets have caused so­called “ju­bilees,” where blue crabs haul them­selves sud­denly out of suf­fo­cat­ing wa­ter.

“It is not an un­ex­pected event,” Barham said.

CHARLES POUKISH/MARY­LAND DEPART­MENT OF THE EN­VI­RON­MENT VIA AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Dead fish, mostly spot and a few small croaker, washed ashore this month at North­west Creek on Kent Is­land in Stevensville.

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