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Wildfires, Toxic Gases Blamed for 2020 Migratory Bird Deaths

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World Migratory Bird Day, May 7, is the largest global event that calls attention to the importance of protecting birds and their migratory habitats. (NataliaKollegova/Pixabay)
World Migratory Bird Day, May 7, is the largest global event that calls attention to the importance of protecting birds and their migratory habitats. (NataliaKollegova/Pixabay)
 By Roz Brown - Producer, Contact
May 3, 2021

SANTA FE, N.M. -- Migratory birds are returning to New Mexico after a 2020 migration that resulted in a mass die-off, but wildfires due to climate change remain a serious threat to their survival.

In August and September of last year, abnormally large numbers of birds turned up dead in people's backyards in New Mexico, Colorado and other western states. Concerned residents documented the event on a crowdsourced science platform called inaturalist.org.

Anni Yang, postdoctoral fellow in spatial ecology at Colorado State University, wanted to know if wildfires across the West had an impact.

"The wildfire and also the toxic gas and the smoke are major factors that will influence the spatial distribution of the birds' die-off events," Yang explained.

Yang noted while birds have adapted to wildfires, climate change has caused fires to burn hotter and larger than in previous centuries, making birds' respiratory systems more vulnerable.

According to the data, more birds died in urban areas, but Yang pointed out because the pandemic forced people to stay closer to home, they might have paid more attention to dead birds than people who live in rural areas.

She added the study looked at deaths of multiple migratory species, including warblers, geese, hummingbirds, swallows, flycatchers, and sparrows.

"If we have that every year, it will significantly impact the population structure and impact the population density of those migratory birds," Yang remarked.

Yang shared researchers also studied whether early winter storms in the West in 2020 played a role in the mass die-off about the same time. They found no strong correlation compared to wildfires and the toxic gases they produced.

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