Reporting from Baltimore — When the term "dead fish" became a top Google search Wednesday, soaring past the likes of Lindsay Lohan and leaving Justin Bieber in its scaly wake, it looked as if the end were near.
That's what everyone was saying, anyway.
After millions of tiny fish went belly up in Chesapeake Bay this week, much of the populace immediately dismissed the official scientific explanation (the water was just too darn cold). What made more sense, they reasoned?
The approaching apocalypse. Of course.
The troubling fish kill, coming as it did on top of reports of birds in Arkansas and Louisiana falling from the sky en masse, had some scratching their heads. And jumping to conclusions.
"Is American Wildlife Cursed?" AOL asked in a headline over a story that began, "Maybe it's time to start storing those emergency food rations." Conspiracy theories raged on blogs, Facebook and Twitter. People sent countless panicky tweets, including:
• "So they['re] blaming dead birds on loud noises and dead fish on the water being too cold.... Are we supposed to believe that?!?"
•"Between all these dead birds and fish around the USA, I think 2012 may be it after all, drink up gang."
Some were more to the point:
•"WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE!"
Though officials in Maryland immediately explained what caused the deaths of millions of spot and croaker, people weren't willing to buy "cold-water stress" — not with so much other environmental upheaval underway.
First, in Arkansas, 83,000 dead drum fish washed up along the Arkansas River. Then, on New Year's Day over the small town of Beebe, about 100 miles from the dead fish, as many as 5,000 red-winged blackbirds fell to the ground, dead.
Alfred Hitchcock might have envied the austere shots of horror captured on film — all those still birds lying on highways, sidewalks and the brown grass of winter lawns. The cause of their deaths only deepened people's unease: blunt-force trauma.
Blunt-force trauma? What?
Then, a couple of days later in Louisiana, hundreds more birds — blackbirds, starlings, brown-headed cowbirds and grackles — expired in a similarly bizarre fashion.
Theories about how that could happen, not once but twice, flew faster than feathers. Hail. Lightning. Power lines. New Year's Eve fireworks.
George Washington University religion professor Paul Duff, who has studied the Book of Revelation and the apocalypse, didn't seem particularly alarmed about all this when reached for comment Wednesday. In fact, he wasn't even gathering food rations; he was catching up on work in his office.
"There has not been a generation that has not cried, 'The end is near,' " he said.
Duff said the disturbing nature of the wildlife deaths, combined with the unanswered questions behind some of them, create the perfect climate for a doomsday plot.
Even if all the poor birds and rotting fish portend nothing in the end, Duff has little doubt that the apocalyptically inclined will not drop their case.
"When they expect [doomsday] to come and it doesn't, they don't give up that belief," he said. "They'll just recalculate. And push [the date] forward again."