Massive migratory bird die-off in Colorado blamed on smoke, snow

Published: Sep. 24, 2020 at 8:48 AM EDT
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VAIL, Colo. (KCNC) - One of the most beautiful times in the year in Colorado has been spoiled by widespread wildfires.

The smoke is having a negative impact on migratory songbirds at the worst possible time, and birdwatchers are concerned.

Kim Langmaid, a professor of sustainability, has been watching birds her entire life. “And I’ve always kept close notes,” she said.

She’s noticed the activity around Gore Creek is anything but normal.

“Well, the strangest thing was during our last snowfall, hundreds of warblers arrived right here on Gore Creek and were ravenous, looking for insects,” Langmaid said.

Experts believe the cold came too suddenly for migratory songbirds. Another factor was smoke.

“I figured the combination from those two things must have been a huge stress on the birds,” Langmaid said.

She’s has heard from her students at Colorado Mountain College. “They’ve seen tens and tens of dead birds right after that snowstorm,” Langmaid said.

Wildlife officials have taken dozens of recent reports across the state, but it’s an issue across the West. In New Mexico, there have been hundreds of deaths in the last month.

“Scientifically, it tells us a lot about our natural environment,” Langmaid said. “It tells us about the quality of the air. It tells us about the quality of the habitat and the insects that the birds forage for.”

Colorado wildlife veterinarians are beginning to study the carcasses and say most died from malnutrition and exposure. Experts will use the information to find out how the sudden cold and forest fires are playing a role.

“Now huge forest fires are going to be challenging, but we can certainly work on maintaining the landscapes that provide safe refuge for these birds as they’re migrating,” Langmaid said.

Environmentalists are optimistic that the bird population will bounce back, thanks to protections in place for migratory species.

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