When thousands of dead birds started dropping from the sky across the Southwestern states in 2020, sitting sequestered in our homes from the pandemic, many wondered if the nightmare we were living in would ever end. Estimates of massive die-off were in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions.
No one had any idea what we were dealing with as New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, Arizona and farther north into Nebraska started reporting thousands of bird deaths from an unknown origin. The majority of the dead birds were migratory birds like the flycatchers, swallows and warblers. Native species such as roadrunner, quail or the curve-billed thrashers were not affected.
Most biologists agree birds evolved from feathered dinosaurs 150 million years ago during the Jurassic Period. Trying to understand what’s happening to these mini dinosaurs, Los Alamos National Labs and New Mexico State University are looking for answers using students trained in a relatively new field of research — Disaster Ecology.
Disaster Ecology tries to understand how disasters are occurring, what leads to these disasters, and how we might mitigate them to reduce their impact on ecologic systems. Ecosystems around the globe benefit from migratory birds as they control pests, pollinate plants and serve as food for other wildlife.
“Something new is happening. Climate change is increasing the frequency and the severity of these weather-related events,” said Tim Wright, a New Mexico State University professor who is leading the research.
Because migratory birds depend on multiple habitats and sites, they’re vulnerable to the effects climate change. When nesting site conditions become unsuitable, they gather in mass and migrate. With less water, warmer temperatures earlier in the year and forest fires galore, their flight patterns and the timing of their migration differs greatly.
Recent studies by NASA show climate change may be interfering with birds migratory patterns which would effect our entire ecosystems. As rising temperatures and shifting weather patterns affect birds' ability to find food, water and reproduce, some scientists think that fairly soon birds might not even migrate at.
According to Jeanne Fair, a Los Alamos National Lab scientist, the birds experienced three different extreme weather events during the 2020 incident.
Fair explained migratory birds are particularly important to study as they indicate stresses from where they’ve been and where they’re going.
“We had had some extreme high temperatures in Colorado and New Mexico, and then we had a cold front come in that that was sort of extreme cold event. At the same time, we had large catastrophic forest fires in the region, and so it was very, very smoky as well,” Fair said.
The National Audubon Society’s Birds and Climate Report has found that many of New Mexico’s most iconic and beloved bird species are threatened by climate change. More than half of the 588 North American bird species studied by Audubon are in trouble as more than 50 percent will lose their current climatic range by 2080.
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