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

Bird lovers in California are realizing that many birds are simply disappearing or worse, turning up dead.

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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.

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Animals

Dolphin Swims Through Louisiana Neighborhood in Aftermath of Hurricane Ida

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A Louisiana family was shocked to find a dolphin swimming through their neighborhood in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida.

Amanda Huling and her family were assessing the damage to their neighborhood in Slidell, Louisiana, when they noticed the dolphin swimming through the inundated suburban landscape.

In video shot by Huling, the marine mammal’s dorsal fin can be seen emerging from the water.

“The dolphin was still there as of last night but I am in contact with an organization who is going to be rescuing it within the next few days if it is still there,” Huling told FOX 35.

Ida slammed into the coast of Louisiana this past weekend. The Category 4 hurricane ravaged the power grid of the region, plunging residents of New Orleans and upwards of 1 million homes and businesses in Louisiana and Mississippi into the dark for an indefinite period of time.

Officials have warned that the damage has been so extensive that it could take weeks to repair the power grid, reports Associated Press.

Also in Slidell, a 71-year-old man was attacked by an alligator over the weekend while he was in his flooded shed. The man went missing and is assumed dead, reports WDSU.

Internet users began growing weary last year about the steady stream of stories belonging to a “nature is healing” genre, as people stayed indoors and stories emerged about animals taking back their environs be it in the sea or in our suburbs.

However, these latest events are the surreal realities of a world in which extreme weather events are fast becoming the new normal – disrupting our lives in sometimes predictable, and occasionally shocking and surreal, ways.

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Mom in LA Suburbs Fights Off Mountain Lion With Bare Hands, Rescues 5-Year-Old Son

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A mother in Southern California is being hailed as a hero after rescuing her five-year-old son from an attacking mountain lion.

The little boy was playing outside his home in Calabasas, a city lying west of Los Angeles in the Santa Monica Mountains, when the large cat pounced on him.

The 65-pound (30 kg) mountain lion dragged the boy about 45 yards across the front lawn before the mother acted fast, running out and striking the creature with her bare hands and forcing it to free her son.

“The true hero of this story is his mom because she absolutely saved her son’s life,” California Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesman Captain Patrick Foy told Associated Press on Saturday.

“She ran out of the house and started punching and striking the mountain lion with her bare hands and got him off her son,” Foy added.

The boy sustained significant injuries to his head, neck and upper torso, but is now in stable condition at a hospital in Los Angeles, according to authorities.

The mountain lion was later located and killed by an officer with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, who found the big cat crouching in the bushes with its “ears back and hissing” at the officer shortly after he arrived at the property.

“Due to its behavior and proximity to the attack, the warden believed it was likely the attacking lion and to protect public safety shot and killed it on sight,” the wildlife department noted in its statement.

The mountain lion attack is the first such attack on a human in Los Angeles County since 1995, according to Fish and Wildlife.

The Santa Monica Mountains is a biodiverse region teeming with wildlife such as large raptors, mountain lions, bears, coyote, deer, lizards, and snakes. However, their numbers have rapidly faded in recent years, causing local wildlife authorities to find new ways to manage the region’s endemic species.

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Blue Whales Return to Spain’s Coast After Disappearing for 40 Years

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Blue whales have been returning to the Atlantic coast of Spain after an absence of over 40 years in the region, when whaling industries drove the species to the brink of extinction.

Blue whales, which are the world’s largest mammals, had long disappeared from the region until the recent sightings.

The first was spotted off the coast of Galicia near Ons Island by marine biologist Bruno Díaz, who heads the Bottlenose Dolphin Research.

Another one of the majestic creatures was spotted the following year in 2018 and yet another in 2019. In 2020, two whales again made their return to the area.

It remains unclear as of yet as to why the creatures have returned to the area, but controls on local whaling industries are believed to play a role.

“I believe the moratorium on whaling has been a key factor,” Díaz remarked, according to the Guardian. “In the 1970s, just before the ban was introduced, an entire generation of blue whales disappeared. Now, more than 40 years later, we’re seeing the return of the descendants of the few that survived.”

Whaling had been a traditional industry in Galicia for hundreds of years before Spain finally acted to ban whaling in 1986, long after the blue whale’s presence in the region had faded away.

Some fear that the return of the massive sea mammals is a sign of global warming.

“I’m pessimistic because there’s a high possibility that climate change is having a major impact on the blue whale’s habitat,” said marine biologist Alfredo López in comments to La Voz de Galicia.

“Firstly, because they never venture south of the equator, and if global warming pushes this line north, their habitat will be reduced,” he continued “And secondly, if it means the food they normally eat is disappearing, then what we’re seeing is dramatic and not something to celebrate.”

Díaz said that while the data certainly supports this theory, it is too early to determine climate as the precise cause.

“It is true that the data we have points to this trend [climate change] but it is not enough yet,” he told Público news.

Another possibility is that the ancestral memory of the old creatures or even a longing for their home may offer an explanation, according to Díaz.

“In recent years it’s been discovered that the blue whale’s migration is driven by memory, not by environmental conditions,” he said. “This year there hasn’t been a notable increase in plankton, but here they are. Experiences are retained in the collective memory and drive the species to return.”

In recent years, researchers have found that migratory patterns are also driven by the cultural knowledge existing in many groups of species.

Researchers believe this type of folk memory, or cultural knowledge, exists in many species and is key to their survival.

A typical blue whale is 20-24 metres long and weighs 120 tonnes – equivalent to 16 elephants – but specimens of up to 30 metres and 170 tonnes have been found.

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