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The Birds Are Dying…

September 19, 2020

Northern shovelers, “shoveling” – Arbor Lake. Arvada, Colorado . January 17, 2020

Ruth Bader Ginsberg died today; not necessary to elaborate on what that means, the whole country knows. The wild fires on the west coast continue to rage, here in Colorado too there have been mean ones – and the wild fire season has hardly begun. The air along Colorado’s Front Range is bad with the Denver Air Quality Index around 125 today, down from 150 or so yesterday. I’ve stayed indoors most of the time for the past week.  In parts of Portland yesterday it was around 400. News of a rash of involuntary hysterectomies in a Georgia ICE facilities, horrible news, while in Colorado the EPA slaps meat packer JBS hand when they should be indicted for murder for COVID-10 deaths and the news is that Denver cops killed three people this week.

And the birds are dying. Hundreds of thousands of them, perhaps more than a million.

Hard to evaulate the first reports but it appears the birds are dying and in horrific numbers. Was waiting for some kind of confirmation. I’ve posted just below an entire aricle from the North American Birds Field Ornithology which gives a plausible initial explanation. I’m not going to post photos of dead birds although there are enough photos on this article, along with video, to give a sense of it all.


I’ve been photographing them and learning about them these past years… a retirement project. In New York City where I grew up I was generally oblivious of birds. Not trying to become – and am not – “an expert.” Nothing wrong with bird experts other than, with a few exceptions, I’d rather not be around them. Like “mushroom experts,” whatever I might gain in identification I lose in other ways: they take the joy out of bird watching for me; I avoid them and bird counts. Again it’s a personal thing, I just want to enjoy birds, connect a little bit, to nature and to their beauty and occasionally, as I seem to this past summer, get insights into their world, their behavior… and escape from mine, at least temporarily, get off this computer – on which I spend so much – too much – time , get a bit of exercise.

It’s become a real joy.  There are a few places I’ve gotten to know better over the years. It helps to visit a place over the course of a year, see what’s there, what isn’t, who the regulars are, the occasional migrants. The thrill this year – and for me it was just that – wood ducks on Lowell Ponds with their ducklings and in the spring cinnamon teals – more cinnamon teals than I’ve ever seen. So elegant.  Egrets and great blue herons have become common place and yet when I see them, I must to get a photo and a hawk couple that sit atop a cell tower at the entrance of Clear Creek Valley Park, and the osprey nest on Lowell Blvd across from Jim Baker Reservoir in S. Adams County.

Near some of the places I go there are trailer courts and over the years I’m come to glean that at least some of the people who take their walks around Clear Creek Valley Park or Jim Baker Reservoir are locals, many down to earth, some simply down and out. Occasionally I’ve spoke to this one or that one – a man in a beat up old pick up truck who just sits there looking out at the reservoir from his windshield. We’ve talked a few times. He’s told me the history of the animal and bird life at the reservoir over the past twenty years, how many more animals there used to be. Yes, we saw a bald eagle that morning but there used to be 3,4 of them every year and now. And he knows more about cameras and lenses that I ever will.

There are others, a chubby woman in her late 60s, early 70s. From her clothing it’s not hard to discern that she’s not a billionaire; she knows the birds and doesn’t need binoculars to identify them. We talk once in a while. She’s like a personal guardian for the place. She needs – needs to be out in nature, be part of it. I’m beginning to feel that way too.

Great Blue Heron couple. Belmar Park, Lakewood, CO. March 5, 2020

At Clear Creek Valley Park there is another man, very busy, intent on cleaning the park of junk, garbage and he spends a good part of his day doing that. Had seen him bustling about intent on fighting pollution. One day when our paths crossed he asked me if I knew what to do with what looked like an old truck tire someone had dumped there. It upset him, “we had to do something,’ he told me. Would I help? I realized that he “was not quite right” but here he was, driven to clean up the environment “we have to, we have to” as a form of mental therapy. “Why are people such slobs?” he asked. Moved by his civic spirit I asked if I could take his picture. He just walked away and has avoided me since.

A couple of weeks ago, but already well into the forest fire season and just prior to the cold span that enveloped Colorado and the Rockies in general, the family got a hint of things to come. Sitting in Molly and K’s backyard celebrating a number of events that in our family converge in late August, birthdays and anniversaries. Their yard has a lovely garden and greenage, and I was enjoying the company, the humming birds and purple finches feeding at two bird feeders. We noticed that a purple finch seemed to be feeding on the ground where it is true some bird seed had dropped. But it stayed there longer than usual. Birds do come to such feeders but they alternate between feeding, and weary beings, they are always looking around for possible predators. That finch was on the ground for too long and after a while it wasn’t feeding at all, just sitting there, lethargicly. Momentarily it flew on to the backyard roof, but then came back to the ground where it died.

I’d never seen that kind of behavior before and wondered what was going on. It was just too old and its time had come? Or was something else going on that hastened its death? I didn’t know, won’t be dissecting it in a laboratory to test it so frankly won’t ever know the cause – other than its behavor was strange and it died..

But I did think about it when a few weeks later, articles started to appear of a massive bird die-off throughout the western states. In the walks I have taken since, I’ve seen a few more dead birds, starlings, not in large numbers but still more so than usual. A friend, with an eye for such wrote on social media that he’s noticed dead birds in the Denver area on bike rides.

Mama wood duck with ducklings. Lowell Ponds, S. Adams County, Colorado. May 15, 2020

The headlines about a mass bird die-off in the Western states the past few days continue. “A `mass death event’ for birds in the American Southwest?” “Birds ‘falling out of the sky’ in mass die-off in south-western states.” These articles are about the recent die-offs that are connected in someway to the forest fires and the recent dramatic temperature fluctuations here in the Rockies’ region. For example, as I have noted elsewhere, the temperature change in Colorado – of record-breaking historic proportions – went from 101 in Denver to 28 degrees in 48 hours – that is a 73 degree shift in two days before rising another 50 degrees back into the 70s and 80s. As for the forest fires, Colorado doesn’t (as yet) have the same level of historic fires that are devastating the West Coast from S. California to Washington, but we have already had several record-breaking or near record-breaking ones – Pine Gulch near Grand Junction and Cameron Peaks west of Ft. Collins as well as the Grizzly Creek fire that closed down I-70 in Glenwood Canyon. And historically, the most dangerous time of year for forest fires, early fall from mid September through early November has hardly begun.

Concerning these bird-die offs, there are several theories being put forth for the bird die-offs at this time. One, simple enough, is smoke inhalation. Another is both the fires and the record cold snaps have forced migrating birds to head south earlier than they usually would, before they had enough fat storage to make the punishing journeys from North to South America triggering death-causing hypothermia, with birds literally dropping from the air or simply keeling over from lack of energy reserves. While it is too early to give definative explanations for these climate-change related die offs, a New Mexico 3rd year PhD student, Jenna McCullough hypothesizes that the cold snap, insects, that key source of bird protein, either die off or become inactive themselves during cold snaps reducing avian food supply. To quote her after analysing the paucity of fat content in dead bird clusters in New Mexico:

Sudden and dramatic unavailability of food caused by a historic and drastic cold snap is, I believe, a more parsimonious explanation than a widespread, smoke induced, mass mortality event.

If a lack of food contributed to the mortality event, birds would have less fat and no protection against hypothermia. Indeed, of the hundreds of birds we assessed, none had fat stores on their bodies. Furthermore, many birds also showed signs of breast muscle atrophy, which points to starvation and dehydration.

McCullough also sites historical data to bolster her case citing mass bird deaths resulting from 1931 and 1974 bird dies off in Central Europe that killed “hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of swallows and martins there as well as a fall of 2000 frost that killed thousands of barn swallows in Kazakstan. According to the studies cited “a sudden drop in temperature caused insects to bcome dormant (and stop flying.)…’“When short of food in cold weather, swallows and swifts often seek shelter in buildings, huddle together for warmth, and may suffer from hypothermia and starvation. Other migratory insectivores also die in such conditions, but less conspicuously.”

House Wren. Barr Lake. Brighton Colorado. July 29, 2020

One Comment leave one →
  1. margy stewart permalink
    September 19, 2020 9:49 am

    Beautiful essay

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