Every day I look at the extended forecast hoping to see some sign of rain in the coming week. We have been through an extremely dry spring, summer and September. Meteorological models favor a drier than normal October for the midsection of the country. In fact all of the states west of the Mississippi river are currently in abnormally dry to exceptional drought according to the .U.S. Drought Monitor. These dry conditions have led to the massive wildfires burning in California and now in Colorado. As of October 11, more than 13,400 firefighters struggled to contain 21 major wildfires across California. These fires have burned well over 4 million acres. Fatalities statewide are 31 and more than 9,200 structures have been destroyed. We see images of those fires and imagine the stress the people are under, but otherwise they seem very far away. The fires in California became personal for me, when my brother and
his wife had to evacuate their home in St. Helena, CA.
While we grieve for the people whose lives have been disrupted and all the homes and other property that has gone up in smoke, we are less likely to be thinking about the impact these fires are having on wildlife.
While we can’t know the fate of millions of mammals, we do know how these fires are impacting birds. First of all, it would seem they have less to worry about because they can fly away, which is true, but the question is where can they fly to that is not burned over or already occupied by other bird species. These fires are happening during the fall migration season when millions of birds are trying to make it down to Central and South America for the winter months. In their journeys they must make regular stops to rest, recuperate and feed.
Birds have evolved over the millennia to coexist with fire in their habitat, but the loss is so great now that the threat to their continued survival is very real. With threats from habitat loss, climate change, and pollution, there is a new one for birds fleeing forest fires. Research finds that bird lungs may be more susceptible to respiratory distress from smoke. They are generally less active, and they may experience a decline in reproduction during smoke events. How the layer of smoke blanketing much of California and the West is impacting birds is unknown, but in New Mexico, biologists recently found large numbers of dead migratory songbirds. Speculation points to fires in the West, which leave birds in a weakened condition.
The fires will eventually end (for this year), but what will happen to the birds when they return next spring? According to Andrea Jones, Audubon California’s Director of Bird Conservation, “Nesting habitat will be at a premium in the parts of the state that have burned in recent years and this could impact an entire generation of birds in some areas if they are unable to find suitable habitat,”
Climate change models predict that rain will not be distributed as evenly as it has in the past. So one part of the country will suffer from drought, while another region, like the southeast will face intense rain events like those brought by this year’s hurricanes.
What can we as bird lovers do to help? We can make sure to keep our bird feeders filled and provide a water source if possible. It can be as simple as a bird bath. We have a small one attached to our deck and it is constantly busy with many species. Some come to drink and some to bathe. We live in a cold climate, so we can plug in the bird bath and provide water when it is least available.
In time the forests will regenerate, and some species of birds will fare better than others based on their diets and the vegetation that grows back. But many birds will be forced into smaller habitats and competition for food and territory will increase. Only time will tell whether we and the birds can adjust to these changes.
By Kate Crowley