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Dead birds, fish, and pitted windshields

First it was the birds in Arkansas.

Mysteriously falling out of the sky by the thousands on New Year’s Eve, they littered the roads and roofs. Fireworks were initially blamed, with biologists speculating that a “stress event” had fatally startled the flock.

A few days later in the same state, 100,000 fish went belly-up for no apparent reason. All were of the same species: Bottom-feeding drum.

What sounds like the beginning of an environmentally-themed horror film (perhaps a combination of  Stephen King, Alfred Hitchcock, and John Frankenheimer’s 1979 film Prophecy) has been insidiously creeping into global headlines.  The initial reports from Arkansas have been joined by sister stories as close as Baton Rouge (500 red-winged blackbirds dying suddenly of unknown causes) and as far away as Sweden (the inexplicable death of 500 jackdaws.)

Early tests have found no evidence of poison. The die-off of fish suggests a species-specific disease may be responsible, though there is no firm conclusion yet, and scientists are busy examining the facts. What is intriguing is that in each case, it appears that there was no mixed populations of animals. Either all jackdaws, all blackbirds, or all bottom-feeding drums.

As I’ve been reading the daily news reports, however, I found myself thinking about two things in particular: The Seattle Windshield Pitting Epidemic of 1954, and the Bermuda Triangle.

Let us start with Seattle. In 1954, news reports began focusing on odd “pitting” being noticed in car windshields. These reports covered a range of deformations on car glass. Some vehicles were affected in minor ways, with tiny bumps and bubbles mysteriously appearing where none had been seen before. Others suffered more serious pockmarks and dings. Throughout the month of April, 1954, nearly 3,000 cars were reported as being affected.

Explanations ran the gamut. Stories were circulated about experiments being done with radio waves or nuclear energy (then a still-mysterious force in the public consciousness). Fringe theories were extremely common as well, and they need not be repeated here. But clearly something was responsible for damaging the cars of Seattle.

We may never know what triggered the first reports, from BB guns to highway pebbles. What we do know is that  once the media began reporting that cars were being damaged from a mysterious force, everyone started looking closer at their windshields. And quite a few started seeing imperfections and damage, which was quickly sucked into a maelstrom of panic and sensationalism.

The Bermuda Triangle’s infamy stems from the same rudimentary cause. Ships and planes do crash, and not every disappearance is easily explained. Sometimes it’s mechanical failure, pilot error, undersea methane eruptions, or storms. Once the media got involved with the visual image of a “triangle” in which bad things happen, the region was made immortal. Research has demonstrated that other triangles, circles, and polyhedrons can be sketched over many bodies of water, and reports of vanished craft will be contained in those borders.

I am not making light of the animal die-offs these last few days have seen. Rather, I eagerly look forward to learning what was responsible (as well as the scale, history, and ramifications of that cause.) Clearly something is going on in Arkansas at least, and it deserves our attention.

The proliferation of “connected dots,” though, makes me think of Bermuda,  Seattle, and how easily panic seduces us into making knee-jerk correlations.

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