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Mystery bird deaths: Blame it on harsh winter, fireworks, or 'avicide'?

It's not unheard of that birds fall from the sky or fish die off en masse – but all at once around the world? Hard cold snaps are emerging as a likely cause of some of the bird deaths and fish die-offs.

By Staff writer / January 5, 2011

One of thousands of blackbirds that fell out of the sky on New Year's Eve lies on the ground in Beebe, Arkansas January 1, in this handout photograph. Stress from New Year's Eve fireworks may have caused the deaths of up to 5,000 birds in Beebe, Ark., which mysteriously began falling from the sky late Friday night, state officials said on January 3.

Arkansas Game and Fish Commission/Handout/Reuters

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Thousands of red-winged blackbirds, cowbirds, starlings, and grackles dead in Arkansas. Five hundred more in Louisiana. Fifty jackdaws fall on a street in Stockholm. And around the world, millions of fish floating belly-up.

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It's the stuff of apocalyptic novels. Scientists have not yet ruled out pollution or chemical toxins as the cause of nearly a dozen mass animal die-offs, from Arkansas to Brazil, in the last week. But as officials investigate, both the mundane and the intriguing are emerging as potential causes.

Because birds are considered indicator species that reflect the health of the surrounding environment, the spate of mass deaths has unsettled many Americans.

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Explanations offered thus far "sound interestin­g and scientific­, but may we remind you, birds have been flying our skies since the dawn of time and rarely have you heard reports of large quantities of birds just dropping to their death," writes Christopher Koulouris on the Huffington Post website. "Which leads one to wonder is there some fundamenta­l shift in our ecology going on or is this just too much of a series of fluke random events?"

For one, an early cold-weather snap – one of the deepest in decades – may have played a role in the deaths of 50 birds in Stockholm and the deaths of millions of spot and croakers in the Chesapeake Bay on Tuesday, scientists say.

The 500 red-winged blackbirds and starlings that died in Louisana on Monday may have run into power lines, and fireworks set off by New Year's Eve revelers may have spooked a flock of 5,000 blackbirds that rained down on Beebe, Ark. Many of the birds had broken bones, indicating that they collided with stationary objects, probably after getting spooked, according to Arkansas wildlife officials.

But those findings aren't definitive, and some experts are pushing back at the fireworks explanation.

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