ALBUQUERQUE – Migrant birds are dying around New Mexico as scientists scramble to trigger one of the largest bird deaths in the Southwest in recent memories.
People started finding dead birds in recent times, ranging from hiking trails to suburban driveways and golf courses, which has intensified the mystery of the cause of the die.
Biologists are investigating whether wildfires on the West Coast could be a factor in death, with smoke piles potentially altering migration routes or increasing toxins by birds.
Researchers at universities in New Mexico and other parts of the country are also looking at other potential factors, such as the recent cold snap in the Mountain West or a drought in the southwest that has reduced pest populations that have led to many The source of food is migratory birds.
“I haven’t seen anything like that in New Mexico in recent times,” said Martha Desmond, a professor in the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Ecology of New Mexico State University.
Dr. Desmond said the first alert about the deaths came on August 20, when a report described a sharp increase in dead birds found in the White Sands missile range in southern New Mexico.
Since then, Drs. Desmond and other researchers have reported reports of dead migratory birds found in many parts of New Mexico, as well as parts of southern Colorado and West Texas. Dr. Desmond said the number of dead birds in the region could easily be in the hundreds.
Trish Cutler, a wildlife biologist at the White Sands Missile Range, told Albuquerque television station KOB over the weekend that less than half a dozen dead migratory birds are reported dead at the weapons testing site in a typical week.
“This past week we had a pair of hundred, so that really got our attention,” Ms. Cutler said.
Residents of various parts of New Mexico began posting similar reports in recent times. In a post over the weekend on Twitter, Austin Fisher, a freelance journalist in northern New Mexico, recorded a video of the dead birds he had come on a tubing trip down the Rio Grande in Valarde.
“I thought to myself, ‘Wait, I’ve never seen so many dead animals in one place in my life,” Mr. Fisher said.
Two doctoral ornithology students at the University of New Mexico, Jenna McCluff and Nicholas Vinciaguera, later surveyed the area and collected 305 total birds, including 258 violet-green swallows.
“Many of them are no fat, many are underweight, and there are not a lot of external signs that they are exhaling too much smoke,” Ms McCulf said.
Andrew Farnsworth, a senior research associate at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, noted that it began dying last week before a sharp drop in temperature in New Mexico. He said the deaths are “clearly a big, big event” in the widespread problem of migratory birds, often caused by cats or crashing into man-made structures.
“This year is different than other years,” Dr. Farnsworth said, he believes the wildfire could be a possible trigger for the death of birds. “We have very hot summers, but very few that combine these huge-scale fires with the heat combined with drought.”
Dr. Farnsworth stated that smoke-toxins or toxic compounds may be a major factor. Pointing to migration patterns, he said researchers could also find similar reports of dead birds in northern Mexico and “all the way to the Rockies”.
In recent weeks many different types of birds have been found dead in New Mexico, including warbler, swallow, and flycatcher. Tristan Bickford, a spokesman for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, said biologists would take some time to determine what the causes were before they died.
Ms. Bickford said authorities in New Mexico provided samples of dead birds at the National Wildlife Health Center in Wisconsin for investigation. He said that if a significant amount of testing was required, it could potentially take months to diagnose the cause.
“It’s certainly not normal,” said Ms. Bickford.
In the meantime, Ms. Bickford urges those who are sick or dead birds to proceed cautiously. She recommended keeping cats indoors to reduce additional stress on migratory birds and urged people to wear gloves if they collect specimens of dead birds to hand to game and fish officials.