SOUTH BEND – This column is for the birds. For all of our feathered friends that perished mysteriously last summer. And for the organization with a strange name, Birds Aren’t Real, that seeks to explain a conspiracy against birds by our own government.
You remember those summer headlines: “Songbirds are dying across Indiana, and experts still don’t know why.” Could the explanation be found in the conspiracy theory of Birds Aren’t Real, a movement with credibility matching that of QAnon?
Here’s the theory: The U.S.  government practiced bird genocide. Why? So real birds could be replaced with drone replicas flying all around to spy on us, listen to what we say, track where we go and record with whom we associate. The sparrow we think we see is a drone. Birds aren’t real.
Although these theorists contended that all real birds already were gone, some apparently survived until last summer. Then they were doomed, falling to the ground all over Indiana, with befuddled experts never suspecting that the government did them in.
Many of you no doubt find this bird-abolishing conspiracy too ridiculous to believe. But it does have three elements that convince a whole bunch of Americans to believe other conspiracy theories: 1) It’s on the internet, so it must be true; 2) It’s described as false by the mainstream media, so it must be true; 3) It’s based on belief that government is evil, so it must be true.
Well, Peter McIndoe, the 23-year-old creator of Birds Aren’t Real, reveals in a serious interview that he started the whole thing on a whim in 2017, writing the name of what was to become a movement on a sign that he carried in a protest march that had nothing to do with birds. It caught on through social media, especially with young Generation Z types who recognized a fun spoof. Thus began an experiment in using misinformation as a satirical attack on misinformation.
The message was expanded in social media, with an actor portraying a CIA agent confirming the bird genocide, and taken on the road, with a van festooned with such messages as “BIRDS CHARGE ON POWER LINES,” “PIGEONS ARE LIARS” and “WAKE UP.” Signs waved at rallies warned: “BIRD WATCHING GOES BOTH WAYS.”
Just like the My Pillow guy, the Birds Aren’t Real promoters sell merchandise as well as conspiracy. T-shirts with “If it flies, it spies” and other catchy messages are sold to help finance van travel.
Young Generation-Zers, with ever-present messaging and quick research, knew this was satire, use of a totally ridiculous conspiracy to poke fun at other silly conspiracies. What about some of the older Americans who listen only to messages of angry conspiracy theorists? After all, a conspiracy with the government using drones that look like birds to spy from the sky isn’t much more ridiculous than other conspiracy theories that capture rabid followings.

Examples: The contention that the shooting of those 20 first-graders at Sandy Hook school was faked, with little actors posed as slain victims. The Pizzagate story that Hillary Clinton and other political leaders were molesting kids held captive at a Washington pizzeria. The QAnon claim that John F. Kennedy Jr. didn’t die in a plane crash and will appear to help Donald Trump reclaim the presidency.
All three brought troubling responses. Parents of the slain Sandy Hook kids were cruelly harassed. A man fired an AR-15 rifle inside the pizzeria in a quest to free nonexistent captive children. Crowds waited for days for Kennedy to reappear in Dallas.
Birds Aren’t Real? That’s a funny spoof, using the ridiculous in a humorous way to make a point about ridiculousness of other conspiracy theories that aren’t funny. 

Colwell is a South Bend Tribune columnist.