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New Mexico bird die-off example of 'disaster ecology' in Mountain West

The remains of birds collected after the 2020 bird die-off in New Mexico and parts of Colorado.
New Mexico State University
The remains of birds collected after the 2020 bird die-off in New Mexico and parts of Colorado.

News brief

Thousands of birds migrating across New Mexico dropped dead in the fall of 2020 and researchers now link the event to extreme temperature and climate conditions.

They call it an example of "disaster ecology" – how one extreme variable or disaster impacts an ecosystem. In this case, the air was thick with wildfire smoke when the temperatures swung from around 100 degrees to almost freezing. The drought didn’t help either.

“When we have these extreme events, there are always consequences,” said Jeanne Fair, an ornithologist with Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico who studied the die-off.

Though disaster ecology isn’t a field of study, it is a perspective scientists can view different events through, and Fair says “catastrophic” events like this are happening more often as the climate changes.

They can be direct like “birds falling out of the sky” or happen more slowly, like the die-off of conifer trees by drought, higher temperatures or insect infestations.

“And then what effect does that have on the humans that use these resources?” she asked.

Fair says the variables for these events are vast – from forest fires to animal diseases transferred to humans – and understanding how ecosystems adapt will help mitigate, predict or prevent these things from happening.

Los Alamos National Laboratory and New Mexico State University have partnered up to teach students how to study migratory birds through the lens of disaster ecology, as KOB first reported.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2023 KUNM. To see more, visit KUNM.

Emma Gibson
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