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Nm Scientists Study 2020’s Bird Die-off to Avert Recurrence

Taos to Las Cruces observed strange groups of dead songbirds in 2020. Golden warblers, iridescent swallows, and pale flycatchers were discovered on riverbanks, barn eaves, and playing fields.

The birds died on their journey from the U.S. and Canada to southern New Mexico, Mexico, and Central, and South America. Migrating western birds are especially susceptible. An October research warns of the “widespread loss” of birds across the U.S., especially western forest birds, which have dropped by roughly 20% since 1970.

New Mexico scientists want to prevent another major bird die-off. Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists examined the causes of the 2020 drought and issued a 2022 paper on bird consequences.

White Sands Missile Range wildlife scientist Patricia Cutler received many reports of dead birds from August to October 2020. She gathered 400 dead birds from the range and heard of more.

She knew the deaths were “abnormal” before they were determined. She and other scientists counted 59 bird species in southern New Mexico. Nearly all birds analyzed had no fat.

Migration is stressful for birds, and they lose weight on their long treks, Cutler said. “Finding so many fatless birds was disturbing.”

Federal laboratories that examined 2020 birds discovered malnutrition and hypothermia signs, with many “severely malnourished.”

Many bird deaths were caused by a storm front and cold snap, but experts blame climate change. New Mexico experienced a 20-year megadrought in 2020.

In recent decades, miles-long parts of the Rio Grande, a migratory route, have dried up due to climate change.

Long-term dryness reduces seeds and insects, said Cutler. She emphasized that vital stopover habitat has been lost in the West. Cutler said smoke from California’s record-setting wildfires in 2020 may have prompted birds to move early or avoid smoke plumes.

Given the hundreds of birds retrieved on White Sands Missile Range, Cutler thought the overall number of bird deaths statewide was in the tens of thousands to maybe hundreds of thousands.

And while there have been no reported mortality incidents since 2020, she warns that a lack of deaths doesn’t indicate human activities aren’t hurting birds. “When they’re off their typical migration paths, they eat up energy and fat,” she added.

While collecting bird corpses, scientists consulted the public. New Mexico State University researchers used iNaturalist to collect citizen sightings of deceased birds.

Hundreds posted photographs and descriptions of dead birds in New Mexico and other southern states.

bird die-off to avert recurrence
bird die-off to avert recurrence

Neeshia Macanowicz saw dead birds while monitoring vegetation in the Jornada Basin north of Las Cruces. She’d never seen so many dead birds or so many species in 12 years of fieldwork. Read more: Allegheny County Police Discovered the Body of a Man Who Had Been Shot

She shared the photographs with iNaturalist and requested bird identification. She felt sorry, but the finding raised awareness of birds at her workplace.

LANL and other government agencies studied 11 years of data from migratory birds banded in and near Los Alamos to determine the link between drought and migrating bird health. In years of severe drought, birds were more likely to be ill with little fat stores, but in wetter years, they had more fat to enable migration. Young insectivore birds lacked fat, suggesting they’re less drought-resistant.

Stanek said greater climatic variability threatens birds. Before, they had enough fat to survive harsh weather.

Artificial lights may have disoriented and attracted in birds, says Cutler, who was astonished to see so many dead birds at White Sands Missile Range. Migrating songbirds use star patterns, landmarks, and the Earth’s magnetic field. Cutler studied how missile range illumination affects birds. Read more: There Have Been at Least 24 Deaths in Bangladesh Due to the Tropical Cyclone

She started designing lights to reduce wildlife impact has no drawback. “Birds are affected by so many things,” she noted, “that any improvement is vital.”

Warblers, swallows, and flycatchers are migrating south from New Mexico. Many Western bird species migrate along the Central Flyway, which includes New Mexico. Stanek said the Rio Grande corridor provides a haven for migrating birds, butterflies, and bats. “It’s a living gem of New Mexico.”

Identifying and conserving stopover locations helps migrate birds. Stanek said if birds are helped, there won’t be another die-off.

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