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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.

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More likely, says Ed Clark, president of the Wildlife Center of Virginia, is that the Arkansas birds were targeted by a farmer fed up with them feeding on his cattle grain. No licenses are needed to kill blackbirds and starlings, and poisoning is a common method of controlling large, noisy flocks.

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"This was a deliberate act of avicide, legal or illegal," writes Mr. Clark in a comment on the Huffington Post. (Surface tests on the birds turned up no evidence of poison, but it's not yet clear whether the birds ate something poisonous.)

Mass bird kills aren't uncommon. The US Geological Survey documented 90 mass deaths of birds from June to December last year. Over the past 30 years, it counts 16 events in which 1,000 birds or more suddenly died.

Dan Scheiman of Audubon Arkansas speculates that many more such events happen than humans see, because scavengers quickly dispose of the evidence.

Testing can take time and is often inconclusive, although methods have improved in recent years, says Greg Butcher, a conservationist at the National Audubon Society. Scientists hope to have an explanation for the Arkansas bird kill within three weeks.

Fish, too, are susceptible to environmental stress, including extreme cold. The cause of some 2 million spot and croakers going belly-up on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland is probably linked to an uncommonly cold early winter, biologists there say. Similar fish kills were observed in the bay in 1976 and 1980. The past decade – not to mention the past month – has been one of the snowiest and coldest in many parts of the US, including the South.

Similarly, a wash-up of several hundred snapper fish on New Zealand's Coromandel Peninsula on Tuesday was linked to weather conditions that caused starvation, according to the New Zealand Herald.

Millions of fish die in kill-offs every year in the US, with causes ranging from pollution to stress. Moreover, some 5 billion birds die annually, most from natural causes.

Nevertheless, officials in Arkansas and Louisiana call the large number of bird deaths "unusual." While the ultimate explanations may not point to broader environmental problems, "it is something we should potentially worry about," says Mr. Butcher at the National Audubon Society.

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