Aflockalypse Now
Mike Nagel

Not long after my company moved to downtown Dallas we started finding dead birds. They were missing their heads. That, I suspected, was their main cause of death. Not having a head. We found them on the sidewalk. A dead bird without a head doesn’t look like a bird. It looks like something else. Having a head is an important bird-feature. So is being alive. It took us a while to figure out what they were. “Those are dead birds,” Elizabeth finally said one day on our way to lunch. And I saw that she was right. They were dead birds. Without their heads.

It’s a shock to find dead birds but not uncommon. According to SiblyGuides.com, somewhere between 97 million to 976 million birds fly into windows every year in the United States, a spectacular statistical range but either way a lot of dead birds. They fly into the reflection, mistaking what’s behind them for what’s ahead. A tidy life-metaphor if you’re into that sort of thing. In their final moment, these birds must believe they’ve finally reached the candy-hard surface of the sky.

I can see their confusion. One night I stayed late in our office to watch the sunset. All the buildings downtown, which seem so solid during the day, go reflective at night. They all look like the sky. You can watch a thousand sunsets at once. Even I felt some desire to throw myself at one of them.

Birds don’t always die one at a time. Sometimes they die all at once, by the thousands. A phenomenon known as “Bird Kill.” Or, better: “Aflockalypse.” On December 12, 2011, people in Cedar City, Utah, found 1,500 dead birds in their Walmart parking lot. The birds showed signs of high-speed trauma. They’d flown themselves into the ground. In Romania, witnesses of a bird kill described starlings falling out of the sky “like stones.” The National Wildlife Health Service estimates that in the past decade there have been 175 mass bird deaths, each involving more than 1,000 birds. Recently, 8,000 birds died along a one-mile stretch of beach in Alaska. A new record.

Bird kills aren’t exactly a mystery though. Scientists know why they happen. Disease, weather, climate change, you name it. There is usually a good reason why things die. Writes Bryan Walsh in the science section of Time magazine re: mass bird deaths: “It’s not even that unusual.”

We want things to be more mysterious than they are. What else do we have going on? A year after we started finding headless pigeon bodies, I started finding body-less pigeon heads. I found them near my apartment. The 3rd law. For every mystery there is an equal and opposite mystery. Or, more simply: for every body there’s a head. Oh, I thought, feeling some sort of satisfaction in the discovery, but having gained no real understanding of the situation.

“If you start looking for something…,” Bryan Walsh writes, “chances are you’ll find it.”

Once we knew what dead birds looked like, we saw them everywhere. We counted them. Seven or eight a day. City workers picked them up at night and new ones appeared in the morning. That, or somebody was moving them around. Who knows. The bodies were dead but the feathers lifted in the wind, as if they were still trying to fly.

Eventually we stopped finding the headless pigeons. Haven’t found one since. It was headless season is all. Mysteries resolve or fizzle out but so few stick around. Someone said it was the work of a downtown owl. I read that pigeon heads can be useful in certain voodoo rituals. I imagined a homeless man with a trash bag full, saving them for later. You never know. Pigeon meat is a delicacy. Squab. I’ve heard it’s nearly inedible.

Mike Nagel's work has appeared in The Awl, Salt Hill, Hobart, and The Paris Review Daily.