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Help solve the mystery of songbirds dying in the Roaring Fork Valley: Send data to a researcher in New Mexico

Charlie Wertheim
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
This lethargic Wilson's warbler was seen at a RFTA bus stop at Buttermilk Ski Area last week.
Michael Torres/Courtesy Photo
How to contribute information </>Go to http://www.iNaturalist.org • Click log in or sign up • Create account (requires email, username, password) • Click upload button • Either upload photo or click “add” for observation with no photo • Click on projects and type in Southwest Avian Mortality Project To see the data, search for Southwest Avian Mortality Project.

Want to help determine what’s going on with lethargic or dead songbirds in the area?

Here’s your chance.

Martha Desmond, an avian ecologist at New Mexico State University, is leading the research team documenting the migratory bird die-off in New Mexico. She was intrigued to hear about die-offs and “odd behavior” in Colorado, recognizing that this may be a large-scale event.

“What we’re trying to do is get an idea of the scope, so we have a platform where people can contribute what they’ve seen,” she said.

Her study is using an online platform called iNaturalist.org. 

On the site is the Southwest Avian Mortality Project, to which the public can upload photos and observations relating to lethargic, sick, dying and dead birds.

Researchers still do not know the cause of the die-off and lethargic behavior.

“We don’t entirely know yet,” Desmond said. “When that cold weather pushed through last week we saw a huge influx of birds that were in trouble or lethargic, and many of them died.”

But she said she has seen bird mortality in New Mexico since Aug. 20 — well before the cold snap.

The research team has sent carcasses to a lab in Madison, Wisconsin, and to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon. 

Desmond said, “We really have no idea” how long it will take to get results, especially considering the fires burning near the Oregon lab.  

Desmond said the birds could be suffering from a combination of stressors.

“It could be the perfect storm where you have birds that are stressed because of the fires across the west. They may have damage to their lungs from inhaling smoke — the lungs of birds are very sensitive. On top of that, when that weather system came through these birds were already vulnerable, and a large number of them died because of that,” she said.

Mary Harris, chair of Roaring Fork Audubon, said the fires could have forced the birds to fly farther than their fat stores could prepare them for.

“Migrating is always perilous, and while migrating at night, they may … not have been able to land in their regular stops because of fires, and had to fly many more miles without fat reserves,” she said in an email.

Another factor could be prolonged periods of dry weather.

“There absolutely could be a drought connection,” Desmond said.

Desmond wants to know more about the migrants’ trip to New Mexico.

“You can take feather samples and either with stable isotope or genetics figure out exactly where these birds came from, and that is something we’ll be doing,” she said.

Desmond said she wasn’t sure how many species have been found dead in New Mexico, but she thought about 50. As of 5:30 p.m. Thursday, the Southwest Avian Mortality Project had observations on 135 species from all of the mountainous western states, Texas and Mexico. 

It might ring true in the Colorado Rockies that the species with the most observations is Wilson’s warbler, making up 9 percent of the 506 total observations. To put the 46 observations of Wilson’s warbler in perspective, only 14 of the 135 species reported in the project have more than five observations.

In the Colorado Rockies, Wilson’s warblers can be found both as a breeding population and as a migrant from farther north.

“Some of the warblers that we’re seeing aren’t necessarily ones that have been living here and breeding here. At this time of the year they could be migrating through,” said John Emerick, an ecologist living in Redstone.

Desmond said that the amount of mortality she’s seen could affect bird populations in the future.

“If this is caused by things like weather and fire this might be our future, and we might be seeing more of these. So one of the things that’s important is to figure out what are the species that are most likely to be impacted by this,” Desmond said.

For now, however, this is a very unusual event.

“I don’t think anybody remembers seeing anything like this before,” Emerick said.

cwertheim@postindependent.com


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