(Mis)reading Revelations: Apocalyptic Visions and Environmental Crisis & Augury: Elegy


  • Michael Young
  • Jessica Marion Barr




(Mis)reading Revelations: Apocalyptic Visions and Environmental Crisis
Michael Young

The Falling Birds of Beebe, Arkansas

In punishing contrast to the soaring and singing bird as a symbol of freedom, the quiet or injured bird might be a perfect symbol for environmental crisis. Dead and dying birds have long been associated with warnings of danger, having been used since the early twentieth century to predict air contamination in coal mines. Often understood to be a good indicator of ecological decline, birds have also been central to depictions of environmental apocalypse, most notably in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962). Images of oil-soaked, dying birds punctuated the visual media after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, despite the best efforts of BP and local and federal officials to prevent photographers from documenting the carnage (see “Critters of the Gulf Oil Spill” and Peters). Later that year, Lars Von Trier showed images of dead birds slowly falling across the sky in the opening fantasia of his apocalypse film, Melancholia. Then, sometime around the stroke of midnight on New Year’s morning, 2011, scores of red-winged blackbirds began mysteriously falling out of the sky over Beebe, Arkansas, a small town in the American Bible Belt.

Augury: Elegy
Jessica Marion Barr

Just before midnight on New Year’s Eve 2011, in Beebe, Arkansas, 4,000 or so blackbirds fell out of the sky, dead. Around the same time, several hundred grackles, redwing blackbirds, robins, and starlings dropped dead in Murray, Kentucky. A few days later, 500 dead blackbirds, brown-headed cowbirds, grackles, and starlings were found on a highway in Pointe Coupee, Louisiana, while 200 dead American coots appeared on a bridge in Big Cypress Creek, Texas. On January 4, in Falköping, Sweden, 100 jackdaws were found dead in the street. And then on January 5, some 8,000 dead turtle doves rained down on the town of Faenza in Italy. Later that year, on October 23, 6,000 dead birds washed up on the southeastern shore of Ontario’s Georgian Bay, and then, remarkably, Beebe was again showered with the bodies of 5,000 blackbirds on New Year’s Eve 2012.

It seems a little apocalyptic.

One might well ask whether this series of mass deaths is a microcosm of humanity’s increasingly toxic impact on the non-human world. But we are not just poisoning an isolated wilderness “out there.” We are poisoning our ecosystems—our sources of food, water, and air; our only home. The warnings are everywhere, if we choose to see and heed them. Because those were a lot of canaries, and we’re all in this coalmine together.

AUGURY: ELEGY. Jessica Marion Barr.




How to Cite

Young, M., & Barr, J. M. (2014). (Mis)reading Revelations: Apocalyptic Visions and Environmental Crisis & Augury: Elegy. UnderCurrents: Journal of Critical Environmental Studies, 18, 7–17. https://doi.org/10.25071/2292-4736/38665



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