The extinction occurred on April 6, 2024. No one knew why they died at the time; the birds just fell from the sky all at once. Scientists were baffled. Environmentalists went into mourning. Activists marched on government buildings. There were riots at the PETA headquarters in Norfolk, at the Ueno zoo in Tokyo, and dozens of other locations worldwide. Everyone had a theory: it was pollution, it was radiation, it was pesticide poisoning, it was acid rain, it was gas, it was smog, it was a disruption of the Earth’s magnetic fields, it was the end times, it was the canary in the coal mine.
Flocks of birds had died before in similar unexpected fashion. On New Year’s Eve 2010 in Beebe, Arkansas three thousand blackbirds dropped dead from the sky. The event made national news, and it happened again in 2011 with five thousand dead. Because of this, Beebe residents were not distressed by the Avicide at first, until they realized it wasn’t only the wild blackbirds and starlings. Their chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, peacocks and guinea fowl had all succumbed as well.
This time it was international, instantaneous, inconceivable. It wasn’t only five thousand birds; it was all of the birds. Some of them made their deaths known, like the sandhill cranes who fell in their thousands along Nebraska’s Platte River, the ostriches that collapsed beneath their riders mid-race in Oudtshoorn, South Africa, or the ravens at the Tower of London whose loss foretold a nation’s demise. In the same instant, others died quietly, like the cassowary chick who passed away in her rehabilitator’s gentle hands at feeding time, or the pet mynah bird whose boy buried her in his uncle's garden beneath two small stone lions, or the pair of cardinals who would never return to Mrs Barker’s birdfeeders where she used to feed them every morning. Everyone felt the loss. The new question people asked––the new moment people remembered––was “Where were you during the Avicide?”
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At 2:53pm in Hampton, Virginia, animal control officer Vikki Smith, together with her partner Jamal Hart, responded to a call about a dead heron washed ashore at the public beach at Fort Monroe. The officers parked their truck near a guardrail and walked down onto the sand. A young mother approached them with her two children and pointed to the dead bird at the water’s edge. The bird was large with a six-foot wingspan, but it wasn’t a heron. It was a gannet. Its neck and wings moved with the shallow waves.
Vikki picked up the bird while Jamal spoke to the family.
“It's not so unusual to find dead gannets this time of year," he explained. “We usually have to pick up three or four of them. They migrate from Mexico, see, all the way up to Canada, but sometimes they can't make it. Maybe this guy didn't get enough to eat, or maybe he was too old. Some of them just aren't strong enough for the journey.” The kids listened to Jamal, but their eyes were on the gannet cradled in Vikki's arms. Its neck dangled and its wings drooped low enough to brush the sand.
Vikki and Jamal said goodbye to the family and were walking back up the beach when several dozen seagulls, as if heeding some unseen cue, dropped all at once from the sky. They landed with thumps in the sand up and down the beach. Two pelicans splashed down in the waves. Chickadees in the trees by the parking lot plinked down onto hoods and windshields.
“What the hell?” Vikki said. Jamal, for once, said nothing.
There weren’t many beachgoers that day, but those present put down their books and beers and nudged their napping friends. They brushed sand from their legs and gathered around the nearest birds. They looked out across the ocean, but no wings were silhouetted against the cloudless sky. A yellow Labrador abandoned his Frisbee for a seagull, which he abandoned for another seagull, which he abandoned for another, caught up in a fierce spirit of play. A little girl squatted in front of one dead seagull and stroked it somberly.
Jamal looked up and down at the bodies on the beach and made a noise halfway between a groan and a sigh. “We’re going to need a bigger truck,” he said.