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Mass Die-Off of Birds in U.S. Southwest Caused by Severe Starvation

Hundreds of thousands of birds mysteriously dropped dead out of the sky.

Elias Marat

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Photograph: Jenna McCullough/University of New Mexico
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When hundreds of thousands of songbirds mysteriously began “falling out of the sky” in September across Western states in the U.S., wildlife researchers were aghast over what possibly could have caused the mass die-off.

Various bird species were discovered to have been injured or simply perished en masse across hiking paths, backyards, and roadsides in states such as Arizona, Colorado, Nebraka, New Mexico and Texas. These included flycatchers, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, loons, swallows and warblers. Many of the birds were also bird and insect eaters migrating from the northern tundra in Alaska and Canada to winter in Central and South America.

Biologists sent the results to the federal laboratories of the U.S. Geological Survey, which found that some 80 percent of specimens were victims of severe starvation – with carcasses displaying such tell-tale signs as emaciated wings, empty stomachs, dehydration, and depleted fat stores, reports Audobon Society.

However, the starvation itself was the result of unseasonably frigid weather conditions linked to the erratic and fast-changing climate conditions caused by humans, according to researchers.

“It looks like the immediate cause of death in these birds was emaciation as a result of starvation,” Jonathan Sleeman, director of the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, told the Guardian. “It’s really hard to attribute direct causation, but given the close correlation of the weather event with the death of these birds, we think that either the weather event forced these birds to migrate prior to being ready, or maybe impacted their access to food sources during their migration.”

The climate crisis was already a top culprit in the mass die-off, with experts speculating that the birds perished as a result of a brutal cold front, droughts, or even the tremendous amount of smoke being pumped out of the unprecedented wildfires raging across western states at the time.

While lab results ruled out physical damage from smoke as a factor in most bird deaths, however, many of the migratory birds were likely pushed off-course by the wildfires and into the windy and freezing southwestern snowstorms raging around Sept. 9 or 10, causing them to freeze to death, collide into buildings and cars while in a disoriented state, and die from either the impact or from being consumed by predators.

The birds were also ravaged by the effects of the mega-drought ravaging the U.S. Southwest, which left them vulnerable to the coinciding extreme weather events.

“We’re not talking about short-term starvation – this is a longer-term starvation,” said Prof. Martha Desmond of New Mexico State University’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Ecology. “They became so emaciated they actually had to turn to wasting their major flight muscles. This means that this isn’t something that happened overnight.”

“Here in New Mexico we’ve seen a very dry year, and we’re forecast to have more of those dry years,” Desmond added. “And in turn I would say it appears that a change in climate is playing a role in this, and that we can expect to see more of this in the future.”

“I think it’s just very sad … Especially the thought that we are seeing some long-term starvation in some of these birds.”

Desmond, who worked with experts at the Bureau of Land Management and White Sands Missile Range to collect bird carcasses and assess the extent of the losses, had described the losses as a national tragedy.

Those who also worked with the massive influx of carcasses were chilled by the experience of working with such a huge volume of bird carcasses.

“The fact that we’re finding hundreds of these birds dying, just kind of falling out of the sky is extremely alarming,” commented NMSU grad student Allison Salas.

Since 1970, bird populations in North America have plummeted by 29 percent, or three billion birds. According to a 2019 study, rampant high temperatures resulting from climate change are drastically altering the migration patterns of bird species. Likewise, the conversion of pastures and grasslands into large crops has thinned out nesting places, while an accompanying mass die-off of insects eliminated by pesticides has deprived birds of their natural food sources.

Animals

Idaho Senate Approves Bill to Kill 90 Percent of State’s Wolves in “Brutal War”

Elias Marat

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Idaho’s legislature is swiftly moving forward with a bill that critics say would sanction a “brutal war” on wolves whereby up to 90 percent of the current wolf population would be killed in a bid to protect the interests of the state’s ranchers.

On Wednesday, the Idaho senate passed the measure by a 26-7 vote. The bill will now move forward to the House chamber, reports Associated Press.

Since teetering at the brink of endangerment years ago, wolf populations were removed from the state endangered species list in 2011. Since then, they have thrived despite Idaho allowing hundreds to be killed by hunters, trappers and state measures to control their numbers. Over the past two years, the wolf population has held steady at about 1,500.

According to federal guidelines, wolf recovery numbers require about 150 wolves in the state.

Republican supporters of the bill said during senate debates that the wolf population has grown entirely out of control, endangering the numbers of deer and elk available to hunters and harming the state economy.

“We’re supposed to have 15 packs, 150 wolves. We’re up to 1,553, was the last count, 1,556, something like that. They’re destroying ranchers. They’re destroying wildlife. This is a needed bill,” said Republican state Sen. Mark Harris. 

However, critics have blasted the move as rash and potentially damaging to the state’s wildlife.

The Idaho Senate’s sudden move to pass this bill in the eleventh hour incentivizes the cruel deaths of more than 1,000 wolves across the state,” said Andrea Zaccardi, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. 

“This brutal war on wolves must be stopped, and we urge the House to deny this bill,” Zaccardi added.

Maggie Howell, the head of the Wolf Conservation Center, also described the move as the latest in a hostile and extreme campaign against wolves that fails to take into account the creatures’ value to the local ecology.

“Beyond the wanton cruelty and devastation the passage of this bill would bring to wolves, this legislation poses a threat to wolves nationwide,” she told the New York Times. “With the Trump administration’s decision to transfer wolf management authority from the federal government to the states, Idaho’s policies can influence expectations about wildlife management beyond its borders.”

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Animals

As Marine Life Flees the Equator, Global Mass Extinction is Imminent: Scientists

Elias Marat

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The waters surrounding the equator are one of the most biodiverse areas in the globe, with the tropical area rich in marine life including rare sea turtles, whale sharks, manta rays, and other creatures.

However, rampant rises in temperate have led to a mass exodus of marine species from the sensitive region – with grave implications for life on earth.

While ecologists have long seen the thriving biodiversity of equatorial species holding constant in the past few centuries, a new study by Australian researchers published in The Conversation has found that warming global temperatures are now hitting the equator hard, potentially leading to an unprecedented mass extinction event.

The researchers from the Universities of Auckland, Queensland, and the Sunshine Coast found that as waters surrounding the equator continue to heat up, the ecosystem is being disrupted and forcing species to flee toward the cooler water of the South and North Pole.

The massive changes in marine ecosystems that this entails will have a grave impact not only on ocean life – essentially becoming invasive species in their new homes –  but also on the human livelihoods that depend on it.

“When the same thing happened 252 million years ago, 90 percent of all marine species died,” the researchers wrote.

To see where marine life is headed, the researchers tracked the distribution of about 49,000 different species to see what their trajectory was. The global distribution of ocean life typically resembles a bell curve, with far fewer species near the poles and more near the equator.

However, the vast alteration of the curve is already in motion as creatures flee to the poles, according to a study they published in the journal PNAS.

These changes augur major disruptions to global ecosystem as marine life scrambles in a chaotic fight for food, space, and resources – with a mass die-off and extinction of creatures likely resulting.

The research underscores the dire need for human societies to control rampant climate change before the biodiversity and ecological health of the planet is pushed past the point of no return.

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Animals

Rare Creature Photographed Alive In The Wild For The First Time Ever

Elias Marat

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Advances in the methods used by researchers to watch wildlife have allowed for the photographing of a rare creature whose image had never been captured in the wild before.

Researchers in the West African nation of Togo were able to spot the rare Walter’s duiker, a rare species of petite African antelope, for the first time in the wild thanks to camera traps equipped with motion sensors.

In addition to the Walter’s duiker, the camera traps were also able to discover rare species of aardvarks and a mongoose, reports Gizmodo.

At a time when the extinction of entire species is becoming more common worldwide, such devices should help conservationists not only preserve creatures sought by bushmeat hunters but also spot rare animals whose presence is elusive for human observers. In the past, biologists were forced to rely on the same hunters for information.

“Camera traps are a game changer when it comes to biodiversity survey fieldwork,” said University of Oxford wildlife biologist Neil D’Cruze.

“I’ve spent weeks roughing it in tropical forests seemingly devoid of any large mammal species,” D’Cruze continued. “Yet when you fire up the laptop and stick in the memory card from camera traps that have been sitting there patiently during the entire trip—and see species that were there with you the entire time —it’s like being given a glimpse into a parallel world.”

The Walter’s duiker was discovered in 2010 when specimens of bushmeat were compared to other duiker specimens. The new images of the creature are the first to have been seen.

Rare species like Walter’s duiker are often not listed as “endangered” by groups like the International Union for Conservation of Nature due to a lack of data.

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