Study: Colorado wildfires linked to mass bird die-off in 2020

Local News

DENVER (KDVR) — After Colorado saw three of its largest wildfires in recorded state history, scientists knew it would take months or years to know the full impact of such devastating events. 
The effect on wildlife is extensive, but the direct impact on certain species of animals was almost immediate.

In August and September of 2020, thousands of Americans in the western part of the country witnessed the aftermath of a mass die-off of migratory birds. Many were spotted in residential areas and backyards, while other large groupings of dead birds were spotted along hiking trails.

Hundreds of people took photos of the birds they discovered and submitted the images to scientists through iNaturalist, a crowdsourced science platform.

“The wildfire and also the toxic air were the two factors that influenced the birds’ mortality,” said Anni Yang, a postdoctoral fellow in spatial ecology at Colorado State University and one of the study’s authors. “The birds are sensitive to the environment,” Yang said. 

The types of birds people discovered dead varied, but most were all migratory birds passing through the wildfire areas, such as warblers, geese, hummingbirds, swallows, flycatchers and sparrows. 

These types of migratory birds have adapted to harsh weather conditions and the effects of wildfires over the years, but the Colorado wildfires in 2020 burned hotter and larger than usual. Yang told FOX31 on Monday it’s too soon to know if these mass die-off events could continue to happen but with the chances of more wildfires in 2021 being partially high, so is the possibility of more birds dying prematurely. 

If you see a dead bird and would like to submit a photo to iNaturalist, it’s important you do not touch the bird or wear gloves.

“People should not have contact with them, some of the sick birds may transmit diseases to humans,” said Yang.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife continues its research on long-term impacts of the 2020 wildfires, recently launching a new podcast.

“2020 has seen the two largest wildfires in Colorado history and over 600,000 acres have burned across the Centennial State,” said a CPW spokesperson. “Along with many of the obvious concerns that come with fires of such magnitude, additional concerns have been expressed towards the effects on wildlife.

The podcast dives into the pros and cons of wildfire as it relates to wildlife, aquatic life and the health of our forests.”

More information about the mass bird die-off study can be found here.

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