The setting could almost pass for a peaceful wildlife refuge, but for the daily rumbling of the Fed-Ex truck on the winding gravel road. It’s the sylvan campus of the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin.
“The National Wildlife Health Center is sort of what it says. We’re a national center and we receive carcasses from refuges and state management areas all around the country, usually from state biologists, federal biologists, tribal biologists,” says disease investigation chief Dr. Scott Wright. Those carcasses shipped overnight to the center are most often samples taken from large animal die-offs. It’s the job of the center to determine the cause of death.
“Much like the CDC would do for human health, or the USDA would do for agricultural animals, for livestock and so forth, that’s the role we play for wildlife,” says Wright.
At the heart of the center is a level 3 bio-safety lab where the animal samples are processed and examined through necropsy, the animal version of an autopsy. “Every case that comes in is a potential real challenge,” says veterinary pathologist Dr. David Green. “I sit down and look at all of these different lab results; the toxicology, the poison tests, the virus cultures, the bacterial cultures. And I have to put all of these pieces of information together to determine why was that animal sick, why did that animal die or why did 500 birds die at this site.”
It was 5000 red winged blackbirds dying in a small Arkansas town on New Year’s Eve 2010 that briefly thrust the work of the Center into the national spotlight. “Oh there were just all sorts of clever names applied to the event,” remembers Green. “’Aflockolypse‘ was, I think, the cleverest.”
Harbinger of the end times, covert military testing, magnetic disruption, all manner of strange theories were applied to the event. The intense interest surprised the NWHC staff, says Wright. “There were people calling me at my home at night, on weekends wanting to know what was going on.”
The cause of death, determined after numerous bird necropsies, was much more banal than the theories. “All of the tests and cultures that we did for infectious diseases and parasites and chemicals came back negative,” says Green. “Basically it came down to, we couldn’t find anything other than physical injuries, what we call blunt force trauma in the birds.”
Those necropsy findings, combined with field reports of New Year’s fireworks, and the fact that blackbirds are terrible night flyers came together to paint a picture of startled birds flying into each other and stationary objects and succumbing to traumatic injury.
This most plausible explanation didn’t satisfy the most dedicated conspiracy-theorists according to Wright. “It really sort of floored us. We didn’t expect that. We didn’t expect to be not believed.”
That’s something that Dr. Wright, who is soon to retire from the Center, finds a troubling omen for the future of science and public understanding. “Science is not being believed,” he says. “That’s not a good sign, because there’s too much important stuff coming that we need to be stepping up and telling everybody, ‘This is what’s going on.’ And they hopefully will believe us.”