The mysterious deaths of thousands of blackbirds is leaving people around the world scratching their heads—but so is the official explanation. As an AFP article on Discovery News noted a couple days ago,

“Fright likely killed thousands of birds which dropped onto a small town in Arkansas, officials said Monday. As many as 5,000 birds began falling over the small town of Beebe shortly before midnight on New Year’s Eve. ‘We right now are pretty confident that the trauma is what caused the die-off,’ said state veterinarian George Badley.”

This explanation seemed bird-brained to many people, including those who posted in response to the Discovery News piece. Their skepticism is understandable: Fright killed the birds? An animal might die from any number of causes, such as blood loss, trauma, or the heart or lungs ceasing to function. But fright cannot kill anything.

The idea that psychological trauma has a physical effect is an ancient one, and fear has generated its own folklore. For example, it is widely believed that sudden fright can not only kill, but turn hair white. This is a common theme in horror films (especially older ones) and ghost stories. It is also featured prominently in many urban legends, describing the results of, for example, encounters with hook-handed serial killers freshly escaped from local insane asylums.

This is a myth; it is physically and medically impossible. Hair cannot suddenly or spontaneously change color. Hair is dead, and once the main shaft of the hair follicle is extruded, expired biomass can’t be tinted or bleached by psychological trauma or fear.

One often hears the comment that someone “died of old age.” In fact, no one dies of old age; “old age” is not a disease, nor is it a cause of mortality. A person might die of a disease commonly associated with old age (such as emphysema or cancer), though such diseases are by no means restricted to the elderly.

Similarly, there is no biological mechanism by which fear, by itself, can kill. It is well known that a sudden shock, stress, or strain can increase a person’s heart rate or cause the brain to release a potentially lethal cocktail of flight-or-flight chemicals. But saying that fright killed an animal is like saying that suicide killed a person. It doesn’t really provide a useful or accurate answer as to what, exactly, happened.

There is a way that fear could indirectly kill the birds, and that’s if they became so frightened and disoriented that they flew into objects at high speed. That explanation is not unusual; in fact, it happens all the time.

Tens of thousands of birds are injured or killed every year from colliding into buildings and other stationary objects, not to mention vehicles and airplanes. In this case, of course, it’s not quite accurate to say that fright killed the birds, but it might have played a role.

photo: Getty Images