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Environment

Migratory Birds Are Dying In New Mexico. Is This Happening In Colorado As Well?

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National Park Service

This week there have been reports from New Mexico about a number of migratory bird deaths. The exact number of deaths, and their cause, has yet to be confirmed.

KUNC’s Colorado Edition reached out to Zach Hutchinson, community science coordinator with Audobon Rockies, the regional office of the national Audobon Society, to find out if this is also happening in Colorado.

Interview Highlights

These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Erin O’Toole: There aren’t exact numbers, but reports are saying hundreds of migratory birds have been found dead in New Mexico. There’s not an exact reason pinpointed yet, but walk us through some of the theories about what’s going on.

Zach Hutchinson: What we do know is that migration is in full swing, and it has been since July. So we’ve been seeing migratory birds on the move for weeks and months.

And one of the leading thoughts is that we had a significant migratory event, meaning there was movement of a lot of birds, in the nights up to and including Labor Day weekend.

And of course, we’ve had these major issues with wildfires. We had that early winter storm that came in through Labor Day weekend for much of the Rocky Mountain region.

And so some of the leading theories are that the wildfires may have caused some birds to leave their breeding grounds early, or they had to use an entirely different migratory pathway. Some other theories are that the smoke is hurting the birds, and there is research, sound research out there that shows yes, smoke damages birds in the short-term and in the long-term.

And then some of the other thoughts are that weather event could have possibly killed a lot of the food sources that these birds depend upon. Because what we’re seeing is the majority of these birds are insectivores, meaning they feed mainly upon insects, and cold temperatures can cause kill-offs of flying insects that these birds depend on.

So how about here in Colorado — are we seeing deaths of migratory birds?

This is a question that’s difficult to answer with a single word.

We see migratory deaths during migration every year. Mortality is part of life. So a lot of these birds, they struggle during migration, just because when you’re a bird, and let’s say a bird is born in the summer of 2020, they’re still learning to be a bird when migration starts for their species, for their population. And it’s a struggle. If you’re a bird that’s only six weeks old and you’re migrating, you might not be efficient at feeding yet. So we see mortality happen during migration frequently.

There’s a big push to get lights shut off in large buildings during migration events, because we see large numbers of bird mortalities occur when birds collide with lit buildings and windows.

And so as it relates to this mortality event that’s being reported, we don’t know how widespread it is. There are bird deaths across the region, but are they tied to this event? We don’t know that. We don’t know the cause, and we don’t know the numbers tied to this event yet. Are we seeing large patches of issues in various regions that are not tied together, they could be having their own problems in those areas? Very possible.

We’re seeing bird deaths in the region, but we don’t know if they’re tied together.

A lot of people in Colorado, a lot of our listeners, love birds. Is there anything we as regular citizens can do to support bird populations?

Great question and yes, just everyday people, we are not powerless to help birds.

Some things we can do. First off, if you are in an area and you are seeing a large number of dead birds, there is a project on iNaturalist that is focused on this Southwest avian mortality event. And it's called the Southwest Avian Mortality Project. So you can become a community scientist and you can share your observations of these birds that you’ve found and contribute to the bigger picture of understanding how large this event was.

Another thing we can do is just something in your backyard, and that’s getting rid of your non-native plants and your turf grass, and planting native plants that support native insects, or native berries, and that in effect supports native bird populations. As habitat loss, habitat degradation becomes rampant, we need to find a way to create habitat for birds, and so using your backyard and turning it back into native habitat not only saves water, but it also helps to provide sources of food and shelter for birds.

And there’s a lot of other things we can do just as concerned community members. But those are two great examples of ways to get involved, something you can do right this moment, you can go out and you can start preparing your yard to become a native plant garden, and going out and if you’re seeing dead birds reporting them to this project so we can get a better handle on what’s happening.

This conversation is from KUNC’s Colorado Edition from Sep. 16. You can find the full episode here.

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