As toxic wildfire smoke chokes West Coast, bird populations have gone missing

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As the West Coast faces an unprecedented wave of fires across multiple states, bird lovers in California are realizing that many birds are simply disappearing or worse, turning up dead.

In the Birding California group on Facebook, bird watchers discussed the total silence that has come to their backyards, where the sounds of birds chirping and singing used to greet them in the morning.

“I live in Folsom—have not seen a bird or heard a bird chirp this morning,” said Jodi Root.

“We live in northern Nevada and have noticed the same thing,” added Gardnerville resident Karen Holden.

“Same here in Napa,” said Tammy Saunders, who said that things had become “very quiet which just adds to the eeriness of the orange colored dark sky.”

Almost 100 seasoned birdwatchers gave similar responses to the survey, with most noting that they saw a marked decline in birds visiting their feeders and birdbaths, as well as a clear thinning-out of the variety of species.

Like the insects that many birds rely on for food, wild bird populations have been in a state of major decline over recent years. However, the record-shattering heatwave and smokey, toxic air conditions in California and other western states haven’t only impacted human populations. Tragically, the ash that is falling across West Coast cities isn’t only comprised of trees and brush, but also includes the incinerated remains of birds and other creatures caught in the wildfires.

And as Deborah Pertersen of Inside Climate News reports, birds – with their highly sensitive respiratory systems that are instantly responsive to changes in environmental conditions – are acting as the global equivalent to the canary in a coal mine, at a time when seemingly the entire planet is on fire.

While much still remains unknown about how smoke impacts bird populations, doctoral candidate Andrew Stillman of the University of Connecticut notes that birds perpetually live on the edge, and extreme changes can have dire consequences for bird species.

“One thing that is important to point out is we do know high levels of smoke exposure can be harmful to birds,” Stillman told Inside Climate News. And unlike humans, birds “cannot escape like humans by going indoors.”

Veterinarians and bird scientists have also found that smoke can leave a damaging impact on the lung tissue of captive birds, leaving them susceptible to deadly respiratory infections, notes the Audubon Society.

 “We do know that exposure to particulate matter, which of course is of great concern for human health, can affect birds as well,” said Olivia Sanderfoot, a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow at the University of Washington Seattle who studies the impact of air pollution on birds.

And while the still-raging fires haven’t given researchers much of a chance to survey the population of birds along the west coast, the anecdotal evidence stacking up is clearly showing that the health effects of the massive plumes of smoke coming from over 85 fires raging in western states is hitting bird populations hard.

“Overall, it seems like the anecdotes suggest that there is a decline in bird activity during smoke events,” said Olivia Sanderfoot, a researcher at the University of Washington.

In a 2017 paper, Sanderfoot and Tracey Holloway wrote that “Birds have long been recognized as sentinel species for environmental change.” 

The literature review concluded that “Exposure to air pollution clearly causes respiratory distress in birds and increases their susceptibility to respiratory infection,” in addition to causing complications to bird reproduction.

However, the science of wildfire smoke’s impact on birds remains largely undeveloped.

“We know pretty much nothing about the long-term impact of smoke on birds,” Sanderfoot said.

Indeed, most of the research on birds only covers a handful of species, and most of it focuses on air pollution rather than wildfire smoke.

“Of the roughly 10 000 species of birds known worldwide, only a few have been studied to characterize avian responses to air pollution, and the animals used in laboratory experiments may not be representative of the wild bird species most at risk from air pollution,” Sanderfoot and Holloway wrote.

Sanderfoot and her fellow researchers are now conducting studies in Washington, a state which saw some of the most hazardous air pollution ever recorded over the past week. Sanderfoot and her team are planting microphones and cameras in smokey areas to register whether bird songs decrease in high-smoke areas.

Tara Sears Lee, a nursery volunteer in Los Alto, California, has also observed the terrible impact of smoke on birds in recent days.

“Outside for 6 hours yesterday and no jays, crows, ravens, quail, turkeys, or hawks – all usual and very vocal visitors,” she wrote on Facebook. “Only hummingbirds, juncos, towhees and titmice. Worst of all was a dead hummingbird just lying on the ground – had heard they are being overcome by heat and smoke and just drop dead.”

Birders across the state are also posting photos on their Facebook accounts of dead hummingbirds in their backyards or, inversely, boosted numbers of birds at their backyard feeders – a result of the forced migration caused by fires.

“I think all the birds came to my house south of San Jose. Sometimes there will be more than 40-50 out there,” wrote Charlotte Trethway Noriega on Facebook.

As Petersen explains in her article, bird populations in North America have plummeted by 29 percent – or three billion birds – since 1970. And according to a 2019 study, rampant high temperatures resulting from climate change are likely to drastically alter the migration patterns of bird species. With pastures and grasslands being converted to crops, nesting places have dwindled along with the mass die-offs of insects eliminated by pesticides.

However, Stillman is finding some small traces of hope in his research of birds that have thrived in areas hit by wildfires. Black-backed woodpeckers are quickly returning to burned-out areas to feed on the larvae of wood-boring beetles that thrive on dying trees burned in fires.

However, Stillman notes “a very big caveat”: the new generation of “mega fires” like the one the West Coast is currently undergoing is far more destructive than those of the past, and the question of “how are the birds responding to this new normal” remains open.