Are birds falling from the sky examples of pareidolia, eschatology, or something else?

The first story of 2011 to grab the attention of just about everybody is shocking and mysterious. On New Year’s Day, residents of Beebe, Arkansas found thousands of dead blackbirds in the street. Days later, Louisiana residents discovered hundreds more deceased birds. Each event in isolation was disturbing enough, but with such proximity, it has been hard not to start drawing conclusions.

Within days, the dual avian tragedies planted a question in the popular imagination: could this be a coincidence, and if not, what was the cause? Conspiracy theorists immediately began suggesting a secret government weapon or UFOs were responsible. Necropsy data on the birds suggested otherwise. The first mass dying was related to fireworks that frightened a large flock to the degree that the birds flew randomly into buildings dying from blunt trauma. The second event appears to have resulted from the collision with power lines. Seemingly, two mundane, unrelated  answers dismiss the notion of an overarching narrative to both events.

A great word for discussing these types of situations is pareidolia, “the imagined perception of a pattern or meaning where it does not actually exist.” Often, pareidolia is invoked in reference to the so-called “face on Mars,” where images of the Red Planet of a certain resolution seemed to reveal a giant set of human eyes, nose and mouth. The term usually applies to sensory phenomena, but also describes the desire to find meaning between events where no causal link exists.

Eschatology is another useful word that helps describe certain responses to disturbing and unlikely sequences of events. Eschatology is defined as “the branch of theology or biblical exegesis concerned with the end of the world.” A number of religious leaders responded to the bird disasters by interpreting them as omens of an apocalypse. This sort of eschatological reading of situations has occurred throughout history.

The desire to find meaning in complex and mysterious circumstances is a natural human impulse. We hope that these two words help you find ways to describe the human reaction to events, like these sad avian deaths, where understanding and vocabulary can seem just out of reach.

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