Hundreds of thousands of birds dropping dead from the sky at ‘unprecedented’ rate in New Mexico

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An ‘unprecedented’ number of birds have been dropping dead out of the sky at an alarming rate in New Mexico – and some experts suspect the wildfires raging across the West Coast might be to blame.

The mystery first started on August 20 when hundreds of dead birds were discovered at the US Army White Sands Missile Range and White Sands National Monument, New Mexico State University Professor Martha Desmond told CNN.

But what at first was believed to be an isolated incident has turned out to be a widespread problem.

In the weeks that followed, a countless number of birds – believed to be in the ‘hundreds of thousands, if not millions’ range – have been found dead all over the state, including in Doña Ana County, Jemez Pueblo, Roswell and Socorro.

‘We started receiving calls a week ago on Tuesday the 8th [Sept.], and they haven’t really stopped since then from all across the state,’ New Mexico Game & Fish Department spokeswoman Tristanna Bickford told the Santa Fe New Mexican. ‘We can’t say any official cause at this time. That would be pure speculation.’ 

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An ‘unprecedented’ number of birds have been dropping dead out of the sky at an alarming rate in New Mexico – and some researchers suspect the wildfires raging across the West Coast might be to blame

An ‘unprecedented’ number of birds have been dropping dead out of the sky at an alarming rate in New Mexico – and some researchers suspect the wildfires raging across the West Coast might be to blame

Journalist Austin Fisher spotted a cluster of dozens of dead birds during a hike in northern Rio Arriba County on September 13

He posted the video to Twitter

Journalist Austin Fisher spotted a cluster of dozens of dead birds during a hike in northern Rio Arriba County on September 13

WHAT IS CAUSING THE BIRDS’ DEATHS?

Experts have so far been unable to determine a definitive cause for the mass die-off, though some biologists believe the West Coast wildfires are to blame.

The blazes may have forced the birds into early migration for the winter before they were ready, meaning some may have not had enough body fat to survive the effort.

Plummeting temperatures as part of a historic cold snap in New Mexico may have killed off insects for the birds to eat, making food scarce. 

Other theories suggest the fires may have forced the birds to deviate from their usual migration route, forcing them into a longer journey that they weren’t ready for. 

Gail Garber, executive director of Hawks Aloft Inc, suggested the birds may have been affected by toxins from the residual smoke of the fires, though little is currently known about the effects wildfires have on birds.

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Professor Desmond called the phenomenon ‘terribly frightening’ to the Les Crucas Sun News.

‘We’ve never seen anything like this,’ the biologist said. ‘We’re losing probably hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of migratory birds.’

In a video posted to Twitter by journalist Austin Fisher, footage shows a cluster of dozens of dead birds he discovered while on a hike on September 13 in northern Rio Arriba County.

‘I have no idea,’ a stunned Fisher says in the video, before panning the camera to reveal what appears to be dozens of birds laying dead on the ground.

Similarly to New Mexico, dead birds – including species such as warblers, bluebirds, sparrows and blackbirds – are also being found in abundance in Colorado, Texas and Mexico.

They all appear to all be insectivores, with both migratory and year-round species found among the deceased.

Experts haven’t been able to quantify the exact number of fatalities or pinpoint an exact cause of the mass die-off.

But one of the most likely contributing factors, biologists say, is the wildfires currently burning in California and other Western states, which may have forced the birds into early migration.

‘Birds who migrated before they were ready because of the weather might have not had enough fat to survive,’ Desmond said. ‘Some birds might have not even had the reserves to start migrating so they died in place.’

A countless number of birds – believed to be in the ‘hundreds of thousands’ region – have been found dead all over the state,

One dead bird is seen on the sidewalk of a New Mexico street above

A countless number of birds – believed to be in the ‘hundreds of thousands’ region – have been found dead all over the state, including in Doña Ana County, Jemez Pueblo, Roswell and Socorro

One of the most likely contributing factors, biologists say, is the wildfires currently burning in California and other Western states, which may have forced the birds into early migration

Gail Garber, executive director of Hawks Aloft Inc, shared the same theory, saying migrations maps show a large amount of birds leaving the Pacific Northwest on September 8 and 9 and flying southwest toward Mexico through the Rocky Mountains.

Typically, she said, the birds would fly south via California but the fires have likely disrupted their route.

Those dates also correspond with a cold snap that sent temperatures in New Mexico plunging to a record low last week.

‘They could have been affected by toxins from those fires,’ Garber told the New Mexican. ‘They could have been forced to leave early without enough reserves. They could have been forced into a longer journey they weren’t ready for. The cold front might have killed off insects to eat.’

‘I’ve seen it suggested that millions of birds have died,’ she said. ‘At this point, [it] will take more research to determine what happened, but it seems like it could be a perfect storm of a couple factors.’

There are currently 87 large wildfires burning in 10 states, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Firefighters have battled hundreds of wildfires across the West Coast since the middle of August.

Since the beginning of the year, wildfires have burned over 3.2 million acres of land, an area about he size of the entire state of Connecticut. 

Smoke from the latest spate of devastating fires has blown thousands of miles across the country covering the Midwest, Canada and even reaching as fair as New York.

At least 35 people have died – including 24 in California, 10 in Oregon and a child in Washington state – and more than 42,000 structures destroyed.

In a tweet on Monday, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said on Twitter than ‘not much is known about the impacts of smoke and wildfires on birds.’

However, residents and biologists have reported seeing birds acting strangely before they died, since the fires have begun. 

Gail Garber, executive director of Hawks Aloft Inc, shared the same theory, saying migrations maps show a large amount of birds leaving the Pacific Northwest on September 8 and 9 and flying southwest toward Mexico through the Rocky Mountains. Typically, she said, the birds would fly south via California but the fires have likely disrupted their route (map of fires and smoke shown above)

Gail Garber, executive director of Hawks Aloft Inc, shared the same theory, saying migrations maps show a large amount of birds leaving the Pacific Northwest on September 8 and 9 and flying southwest toward Mexico through the Rocky Mountains. Typically, she said, the birds would fly south via California but the fires have likely disrupted their route (map of fires and smoke shown above)

Experts haven’t been able to quantify the exact number of fatalities or pinpoint an exact cause of the mass die-off, but expect the wildfires are at least a contributing factor

Similarly to New Mexico, dead birds - including species such as warblers, bluebirds, sparrows and blackbirds – are also being found in abundance in Colorado, Texas and Mexico

Experts haven’t been able to quantify the exact number of fatalities or pinpoint an exact cause of the mass die-off, but expect the wildfires are at least a contributing factor

In one example cited by CNN, birds that are normally spotted in shrubs and trees were seen on the ground, looking for food and chasing after bugs.

Professor Desmond said a number of other birds observed were lethargic and unresponsive, causing them to be hit by cars in numbers ‘larger than ever seen before’.

At the White Sands Missile Range, swallows – aerial insectivores that don’t walk – were also seen sitting on the ground and letting people approach them, she added.

But while the fires and dry weather may have been an amplifying factor in the deaths and strange behavior, Desmond says a number of questions still remain.

‘We began seeing isolated mortalities in August, so something else has been going on aside the weather events and we don’t know what it is. So that in itself is really troubling,’ she said.

Desmond’s department has been collecting samples of the birds that will eventually be sent to the US Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory in Oregon, however that examination could take up to three months to complete.

‘This is devastating. Climate charge is playing a role in this.’ Desmond said. 

‘We lost 3 billion birds in the US since 1970 and we’ve also seen a tremendous decline in insects, so an event like this is terrifying to these populations and it’s devastating to see.’

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