Bird Deaths, Redux
I was looking at the Twitter stream recently and saw a few tweets about the sudden bird deaths in Sweden and Arkansas in the past week or so. It would seem that it’s a mystery that birds fall out of the sky and die. And, being human beings, we can’t resist mysteries. And, some human beings can’t resist piling even MORE mysteries on top in an effort to explain.
Ultimately, there are logical, scientific explanations for this sudden die-off of birds. But, I’m afraid they aren’t going to be NEARLY as sexy as the UFOs, Klingon battle cruisers, mysterious radar installations, magical laser tests, cloaked angels, and Julian Assange, all of which have been invoked–without any evidence, mind you–by people ignorant of physics and bird biology as reasons why these guys died.
It turns out that the Swedish media has already uncovered a fairly logical and straightforward explanation for their bird die-offs: birds were sitting in the street eating salt and not moving when cars bore down on them. It’s pretty cold up there, and birds are just like the rest of us–not willing to move away from food or a warm spot, even in the face of danger. Their injuries are consistent with blunt-force trauma of the kind that occurs when a living being is hit by a car or truck.
Interestingly enough, the Arkansas die-offs also appear to have a reasonable explanation that fits reality: they seem to be tied to the custom of setting off fireworks on New Year’s Eve. The birds were found dead on New Year’s Day. According to one wildlife specialist (you know, a scientist who actually studies and understands birds), the loud noises of the firecrackers likely caused birds to fly at lower than normal heights or were flushed from their roosts in panic. Low-flying birds hit buildings (I’ve experienced this at my house, actually).
So, those are plausible and logical reasons for the birds to die.
I know, I know. Those reasons are not as exciting and tingly as others that non-scientists can dream up, so it’s understandable if you don’t want to believe them. But this isn’t an issue of “belief.” It’s an issue of looking at the facts and the evidence and figuring what reasons BEST fit the facts and evidence IN HAND.
You know, often the prosaic IS what happens in life. And, in these cases, there’s just no evidence for any other “mysterious” reasons–and science and logical thinking is all about the evidence.
Any of you who watch the CSI television shows already know their motto: follow the evidence. And, in all the cases of the dead birds, the evidence points to very understandable physical reasons like fireworks, cold snaps, birds in the roadway getting hit by cars, and so on.
Still, it’s been wryly amusing to read the wild-eyed speculation that is sucking in satellite radio jocks, bloggers, and Twitter-twatters. One tweeter noted that an installation called HAARP caused the die-off. It sounds weird and mysterious and people who don’t know much about physics or bird biology are using it tie into bird migrations, bird hearing and a factor called echolocation. And, in fact I noticed it mentioned on a loony-tune website that frequently brings up all kinds of mysterious “death rays” and other fantasies.
Of course, when you examine these in the light of reality, their theories don’t hang together, but hey, put them all together and they sound (but aren’t) plausible. To paraphrase the late George Carlin, “Take three or four things that aren’t related and tie them together and some idiot will buy them as an explanation for an otherwise easily explained phenomenon.”
Well, let’s do a little CSI-style investigation here.
First, as you know if you watch these shows, you want to look for several things in an incident, among them are means, motive and opportunity. In this case, our two best trails to follow are means and opportunity. The “means” is suggested by some people to be HAARP. So, we’ll look at what that is and what it does, first. However, if you want to know what HAARP does, you have to know what it studies. So, we’ll look at THAT, too.
HAARP stands for “High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program“–a completely NON-classified installation in Alaska that studies the ionosphere–the upper layer of Earth’s atmosphere that is created each day by solar radiation and partially (but not completely) destroyed each night.
Here’s how the ionosphere works–you need the Sun (as mentioned) and an atmosphere (which we do). A tiny part of the sun’s output is made up of extreme ultraviolet photons–like the ones that give you a sunburn, but more energetic. These photons get stopped when they collide with the atmosphere and they have enough energy to make some of the neutral (not charged) atmospheric gas into ions and electrons. This creates a charged gas layer–the ionosphere.
This has been occurring since the Earth formed and is something that must happen any time a planet with an atmosphere encounters the Sun’s continual pumping of energy out to the solar system. Scientists have been studying this charged gas layer for decades now. It has a lot of variations that are driven by changes in the solar output, but also by other naturally occurring “space weather” effects involving the solar wind (a magnetized stream of charged particles) interacting with Earth’s magnetic field. All this is the subject of atmospheric science–the study of our atmosphere and the processes, particularly the solar wind, that affect it.
Now, from a more practical perspective the ionosphere has some interesting properties that affect communications. It acts as a kind of “bouncing surface”, and radio signals can reflect off that surface and over to other parts of theplanet. Every radio-frequency technology that transmits information over long distances is influenced by the ionosphere. So, it makes sense that people–particularly the ones who bounce signals around the planet (telecommunications, broadcast, GPS, etc.)–want to know more about the ionosphere and how it influences radio signals. This is where HAARP comes in.
Atmospheric scientists study the charged part of our atmosphere from the ground. They have to, since, last time I checked, Alaska is not hovering tens to hundreds of kilometers above the surface. This ground-based study of the ionosphere is what HAARP does. It sends signals upwards to bounce off the charged upper part of our atmosphere. It then studies what happens to those signals. I won’t go into a lot of details because I don’t want to scrape their site–especially when you can simply go there and read it (see link above)–and you should. It’s fascinating reading. But, suffice to say, the signals are similar to those from just about every other radar-based installation that studies the ionosphere–and we’ve been studying the ionosphere for decades.
For those of you who are technically oriented, the signals that are transmitted are in the 2.8 to 10 MegaHertz (2.8 to 10 million oscillations per second) frequency range. This is above the AM band on your radio, but below the FM band. At these frequencies and the powers at which they are transmitted, the signals have much lower energy than those ultraviolet photons already coming from the Sun that I mentioned earlier.
HAARP has a big antenna and it is focused pointing upwards, toward the ionosphere. If you stood next to it, you would experience signal levels that are comparable to or weaker than those of a commercial AM broadcast station (which is designed to transmit its energy more evenly towards the ground, since not many Talk Radio callers live in space). The key here is that you have to stand close to the transmitter.
If you were a bird and were to fly through the signals from HAARP directly (and I should note that birds have been doing that through the much stronger signals from the antennas of commercial transmitters ever since radio was invented) you wouldn’t suddenly drop dead out of the sky. Furthermore, as you get farther away from the place where the signals are created, the power drops off in a scientifically well-understood way called the Power Law. The farther away you get, the MUCH lower the signal you would experience.
Let me put this another way: to be affected by the transmitted signals, you (or a bird) would have to be really, really close to the transmitting station.
The other half of the “means” equation is the bird. Supposedly, in the “theory” that I read about suggesting that HAARP was zapping birds out of the sky, the birds’ sense of hearing or direction was somehow messed up by mysterious radar signals, suggested to be from HAARP. And, since some bird migrations are influenced by the avian ability to detect Earth’s magnetic field, and magnetic fields are part of that whole electricity and magnetism thing that also results in radar and radio signals, there’s a perfectly plausible-sounding reason to blame mysterious radar waves for messing up birds.
Yeah, well probably not. Here’s why. Look at ALL the factors in bird migrations, which also include the location of the Sun, andlandmark recognition. Neither of THESE have anything to do with HAARP and everything to do with a bird’s ability to find its way over long distances.
But, let’s look at the frequencies that birds DO do sense. If you go and read the HAARP pages (see link above), you’ll see where I got the information that HAARP operates between 2.8 to 10 MegaHertz (2.8 to 10 million oscillations per second). Birds are sensitive to a range between 100 Hertz to 29000 Hertz (29 kiloHertz), or 100 to 29,000 oscillations per second. Compare that to the HAARP frequencies. See the difference?
Yep, the two ranges aren’t close, so it’s tough to see how a radar frequency would mess up a bird’s sense of direction or cause it to fall out of the sky.
That leaves echolocation. A few bird species can navigate using something called “echolocation”, which means that they emit high-pitched sounds and then listen for the echoes of those sounds to bounce off of nearby objects. But they are tuned to their own emissions, not somebody else’s.
Interestingly, it does not appear that the birds that died actually have this ability. They also don’t live in the kinds of environments that require echolocation. The ones that do use that ability live in in environments that require them to echolocate, such as cave-dwelling birds. Nor, does it look like the frequencies that birds CAN sense are the same as the HAARP radar frequencies. So, if they don’t do echolocation, or live in those environments, or sense the same frequencies as HAARP, then the theory fails based on actual evidence of what birds actually DO.
Okay, so the means may not work out, but just to be complete, let’s look at opportunity–that is, the likelihood that a given radar station could have caused all these particular birds to die.
Let’s postulate that somehow the birds were affected by HAARP signals, even though they don’t sense the same frequencies. For that to happen, they would have had to have been flying very, very darn close to the transmitting station in Alaska, and then somehow made it all the way to Sweden or Arkansas in time to die. Last time I looked, Alaska and Sweden are pretty far apart. Same for Alaska and Arkansas. Thousands of kilometers, actually. And an affected bird is supposed to make it all that way? I think not.
Now, there is an ionospheric scatter radar study facility in Tromsø, Norway, way up at the top of the country. But, to be complete in our investigation, we’d want to check the operating logs at Tromsø to see if and what it was transmitting around the time the birds died. And, again, it’s not close enough to where the birds died to have the desired effect. And, I point out that, it, too has been using radar signals for decades as very weak probes of the upper atmosphere (although at different frequencies), and they haven’t seen any problems. So, I doubt that this station was a factor either, particularly for the Arkansas die-offs.
The HAARP (and other similar) signals propagating around the world are fairly weak, particularly when compared to such things as the natural effects from the Sun’s output, and I suggest, certainly not strong enough to cause 5,000 birds to fall out of the sky in one area not very close to the transmitter. Physics tells us this and–we can measure it.
Let me reiterate: such weak radar testing signals have been used for decades. By all rights, if they were causing birds to fall out of the sky, we should have been seeing massive die-offs every time a signal was propagated. We don’t see that.
So, that leaves us with a bunch of dead birds to investigate. Just by easily understood physics and NO mysterious handwaving, it doesn’t seem that HAARP had anything to do with this. Just too far away and not in the same frequency range.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we look for other means and opportunity that are tied more locally to where the birds lived and where found. It might be useful to look at the time of year these die-offs have happened; also look at such things as local temperatures, proximity to airports (both military and civilian), and all the other factors that could cause birds to be found dead on the ground. Those would be in the HONEST approach to take.
I haven’t seen clear, definitive answers to why these birds died off — although I’m sure that wildlife biologists will do their usual good jobs and find those answers. But, from the simple physics, I think that Occam’s Razor rules out the radar waves from transmitting stations.
This is a good object lesson in how science works, folks. It works by examining the available evidence and using the most logical explanations (and laws of physics, etc.) to understand phenomena. It doesn’t work by constructing a narrative based on fear, misunderstanding, ignorance, political or religious ideology, or any other nonscientific non-data points, and then trying to fit the facts around the pre-approved narrative. That ways lies madness, ignorance, and pseudoscience.
In the case of the bird deaths, it seems that more prosaic factors are at work–like bird behavior, biology, cold weather and fireworks. To invoke anything beyond that requires a LOT more explanation and coincidences just to make a WAG-based story hang together. But, hey, who doesn’t like a good, juicy conspiracy theory, eh? it’s a heck of a lot easier than using our brains and a little common sense to explain the phenomena we witness on our planet.