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Scientists See Cold Snap And Wildfires As Possible Culprits In Bird Die-Off

J. N. Stuart
Flickr Creative Commons

Large numbers of migratory birds have reportedly dropped dead in New Mexico and Colorado.

There’s still confusion over the deaths, like how many died and what exactly killed them. However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service believes the bird deaths in Colorado and New Mexico were caused by an unusual cold front.

HUNDREDS of dead birds have been reported throughout the state of New Mexico over the past two weeks or so. Please read this thread and retweet! (1/9) #TeamBird #avian #ecology #conservation #migration #extinction pic.twitter.com/8vyyVxjssK— Allison Salas (@salasphorus) September 13, 2020

“Temperatures dropped 30-40 degrees in just a few hours, disrupting the birds' journeys along their migration routes causing them to drop out of migration into areas in the southern United States where water and food supplies necessary to replenish energy stores were limited,” the agency said in a statement, noting that this event happens periodically.

But researchers believe wildfires could have played a role, too. That may have been because birds started migrating early or changing migration routes to avoid fire, or were physically affected by the fire and smoke, itself — though scientists don’t actually know what those physical effects are yet.

“We definitely know that fire can be good and bad. And that many times burned areas provide a lot of benefit to wildlife," said Andrew Stillman, an ecologist at the University of Connecticut. "But the face of fires out West is changing. And some of these newer, larger megafires can produce many different threats to wildlife species.”

Stillman noted the black-backed woodpecker, which lives across some northern parts of the Mountain West.

“They like when fires burn all of the trees on a landscape, producing a forest of dead trees. And those trees are filled with the larvae of wood-boring beetles, which is a favorite food source,” he said.

But he said emerging research shows that larger “mega-fires” (at least 10,000 hectares) are even harming habitats for fire-loving birds like that black-backed woodpecker.

Ultimately, Stillman said, we need to analyze the birds that have died and then do field studies to see how the more recent phenomena of mega-fires and their massive smoke plumes affects birds that aren’t used to them.

To help scientists researching these bird deaths, you can submit pictures and details of a dead or lethargic bird to the Southwest Avian Mortality Project.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.

I’m the Mountain West News Bureau reporter at Boise State Public Radio. That means I work with reporters and NPR stations around the region to cover Mountain West issues like public lands, influential court cases and the environment, among many other things.
Madelyn Beck is Boise State Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. She's from Montana but has reported everywhere from North Dakota to Alaska to Washington, D.C. Her last few positions included covering energy resources in Wyoming and reporting on agriculture/rural life issues in Illinois.