Thousands of dead birds rained down from the sky in Arkansas and Louisiana recently. TBD’s John Metcalfe sat down with zoologist Gary Graves from the bird division of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History to discuss some of the theories careening around the internet. UFOs? Violent weather events? Firework-induced panic and injuries? Graves weighed in on these theories and more.

A Bloomberg report explains that the most likely culprit in the Arkansas case were fireworks that were shot up minutes before the birds died.

Although speculation has run high that the recent fish deaths in Arkansas are somehow related to the bird deaths, this seems unlikely.

The birds were the second mass wildlife death in Arkansas in recent days. Last week, about 83,000 dead and dying drum fish washed up along a 20-mile stretch of the Arkansas River, about 100 miles west of Beebe. Wildlife officials say the fish deaths are not related to the dead birds, and that because mainly one species of fish was affected, it is likely they were stricken by an illness. Full test results could take up to a month.

As for a connection between the deaths of birds in two states on two different days, a bird conservation expert for the Audubon Society weighed in for ABC news:

While the deaths seem startling, a bird expert said these types of birds tend to roost at night in huge numbers, and a disturbance can easily cause some to be disoriented and collide with buildings or trees.
“It’s not surprising if it’s one or two events like this,” said Melanie Driscoll, director of bird conservation, Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi Flyway, National Audubon Society. “These things happen.”

Ornithologists have been busy reminding the public that blackbirds roost together in massive numbers. According to the Cornell University Ornithologists, the birds can roost in flocks that number in the millions. A few thousand birds out of a flock that size is less apocalyptic sounding than early news reports made the event seem.

That’s not to say that the case is closed. Scientists continue to study the incidents and nothing has been ruled out yet (except probably the UFO stuff), so we’ll have follow-up on the story as it evolves.

In the meantime, can learn more about red-winged blackbirds at the world-renowned Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s terrific All About Birds website.

Starting tomorrow, Saturday, October 16, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History there will be a temporary exhibit depicting a coral reef and related eco-system. The reef is constructed of crocheted coral made of yarn, found objects, and recycled materials. The reef is installed in the Sant Ocean Hall, on the first floor of the museum.

The [Hyperbolic] Crochet Coral Reef resides at the intersection of mathematics, marine biology, handicraft and community art practice, and also responds to the environmental crisis of global warming and the escalating problem of oceanic plastic trash.”

The Smithsonian community reef is a satellite project that’s part of a larger project created by the Institute for Advanced Figuring, “an organization dedicated to the poetic and aesthetic dimensions of science, mathematics and the technical arts.”

Here’s IFF Co-Founder Margaret Wertheim’s TED Talk, “Margaret Wertheim on the beautiful math of coral.”

Other satellite reefs have been constructed in other places and there are more on the horizon, the Institute’s website has more information on that schedule.

I was pleased to be able to to contribute a number of pieces of coral that I made, which are now part of the Smithsonian’s permanent collection.

I was able to some devote some time to the assemblage and curation process and I can tell you – with no bias at all – that the reef looks amazing!*

More information about the exhibit can be found here and there will be lots of family-oriented activities in the exhibit area tomorrow, starting at 11. The reef will be on display until April 24, 2011.

*Maybe a little bias, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true!

At dinner, Samer filled me in on the latest political nonsense. Thanks to the never-ending migraine I had no idea about Sarah Palin’s bizarro speech last week wherein she stumped for more autism research while railing against…um, autism research.

In one of those moments of sheer wackiness that comes about only at the end of a long and grueling presidential campaign, I type the words, “Christopher Hitchens speaks for me.” If you don’t wish to read his entire Slate essay, “Sarah Palin’s War on Science – The GOP ticket’s appalling contempt for knowledge and learning,” which you should, because it’s quite good, let me hit the highlight for you:

This is what the Republican Party has done to us this year: It has placed within reach of the Oval Office a woman who is a religious fanatic and a proud, boastful ignoramus. Those who despise science and learning are not anti-elitist. They are morally and intellectually slothful people who are secretly envious of the educated and the cultured. And those who prate of spiritual warfare and demons are not just “people of faith” but theocratic bullies. On Nov. 4, anyone who cares for the Constitution has a clear duty to repudiate this wickedness and stupidity.

I wanted to add, however, that The Loom, a science blog at Discover Magazine, is willing to cut Palin a sliver of slack as there is research into the Olive Fruit Fly in France that is, in fact, unrelated to Autism. I have no way of knowing what she meant, so I’ll link to UNC Health Care’s post, “In defense of fruit flies and basic medical research” and proceed on the assumption that no matter what the woman was trying to refer to, she’s still an idiot.

Now this is news: I was watching hurricane coverage and just saw this in the crawl at CNN: Muppets Dr Bunsen Honeydew and his assistant Beaker defeated Dr Strangelove, Dana Scully of “X Files” fame and Star Trek’s Mr Spock to be voted Britain’s favorite screen scientists on Monday.

That’s when Husband threatened to make me turn off the TV.

So I turned to the Internet to learn more. The poll was sponsored by the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Cult TV site at BBC.com.

I liked this bit from the Reuters story:

“They are accessible, humorous and occasionally blow each other up,” said Roland Jackson, of the British Association for the Advancement of Science

Documentary Film God Mark Lewis (he of Cane Toads, Animalicious, and Rat) has an airing of his new film, The Natural History of the Chicken on Wednesday night on many PBS affiliates. (check your local listings for details) It’s fabulous and you simply have to watch it. I command you to watch it, as a matter of fact.