Just when you thought life could get any weirder, a missing chapter from Hitchcock’s The Birds appears to surface as a massive die-off of dead birds dropping from the sky is occurring across the Southwestern states. Estimates of our feathered friends dropping dead in mid-flight are in the hundreds of thousands if not millions lost over the last month. While we are experiencing our pandemic, birds have their own horror of unknown origin that they are dealing with.
One of the first reports about the die-offs was in August, describing a sharp increase in dead birds found at the White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico. At this point the mass die-offs can be found across New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, Arizona and farther north into Nebraska. So far native species such as roadrunner, quail or the curve-billed thrashers, great-tailed grackles and white-winged doves do not appear to have been affected as the majority of the dead birds are migratory birds like the flycatchers, swallows and warblers.
As the migratory birds head south from the cold tundra regions in Alaska and Canada, they pass over Southwestern United States to winter in warmer climates in Central and South America. Because they are traveling such long distances during this migration, it is imperative the birds land every few days to refuel before continuing their journey south. The bird carcasses found have very little remaining muscle mass or fat reserves, with some birds appearing to have plummeted into the ground in mid-flight. Allison Salas, a graduate student at NMSU who has been collecting carcasses, wrote in a Twitter thread about the die-off. “Almost as if they have been flying until they just couldn’t fly anymore.”
There is a wide range of theories and speculation as to the cause of the mortality rate of the birds. These include damage to their lungs from inhaled smoke from fires raging across the West; changing their migratory flight patterns from the coastal area where food is more abundant and flying inland to avoid wildfire smoke where conditions related to climate change have created fewer insects, the main food of migrating birds; the cold snap between Sept. 9 and 10 (Dead birds were found prior to this) or the frequency of the 5G cell phone towers. It could be a combination of all of these or something that’s still unknown.
The chances that you may run across dead birds is high as they are being found on driveways, bike paths and roads, hiking trails and in parking lots. Mass avian mortalities during migration are rare. Researchers at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces who are monitoring the full extent of this mass mortality have invited New Mexico residents to help solve the mystery by sharing photos or written descriptions via your cellphones involving a recent mass die-off of migratory birds in the state. Click here to participate.
The City of Albuquerque does not pick-up dead birds, and in almost all cases does not test birds for cause of death.
If you find a dead bird, you should leave it alone or dispose of it without touching it with your bare hands. Use plastic throw-away gloves and place the bird in a plastic bag before disposing of it in the trash. Wash any clothing and clean any indoor surfaces that have been touched by the dead bird. Wash your hands well with soap and warm water.
More information about dead bird disposal can be found here online at the City’s Department of Environmental Health.