Citizen Scientists Pitch In On Research For Bird Die-Off In the Southwest

Graphic: Annabel Driussi for Our Daily Planet

Over the last few months, thousands of migratory birds have dropped dead, inexplicably falling out of the sky across the southern United States. Scientists speculate that smoke from wildfires has poisoned birds and forced them to migrate through new territory with fewer food sources. But there is much they still do not understand. Now there is an app that can help them connect the dots. iNaturalist, a crowd-sourced app, allows users to upload a photo of a particular specimen onto the site, and then experts can identify it.  So far, users have logged more than 1,000 dead birds across the southwest, encompassing 194 species, and researchers at the Southwest Avian Mortality project are using this data to understand what led to this mass die-off.

Why this Matters:  It’s difficult for scientists to research long-term data trends since they often work in small teams, in small geographic areas. This is even more of a challenge with climate change issues. Allison Salas, a researcher that helped develop the iNaturalist study, told the Guardian. “With increasing changes to climate and rising temperatures, we do not have time to collect the data — things are changing faster than we can keep up with.”  Researchers are depending on citizen scientists and bird watchers to collect data to help them understand the effects of climate change on birds. It’s working — citizens have recorded as many as 100 million bird observations per year.

Are the wildfires to blame?

There are several reasons why this question is difficult to answer. It’s hard to compare the before and after-effects of wildfires since we cannot predict when they happen. And because birds can fly, they can usually escape the smoke.  But these days, because the atmosphere is so smoky across the West coast, it’s much harder for the birds to escape. With smoke poisoning their habitats, birds may have had to migrate sooner than usual, through unfamiliar areas, in which it’s hard for them to find food. This is consistent with the data, in that most of the migratory birds who died weren’t experiencing symptoms of smoke poisoning, but rather of starving.

That said, birds are incredibly sensitive to air pollution, so scientists suggest smoke poisoning could be a factor.  Birds have a unique, sensitive respiratory system — they inhale and exhale at the same time. As the Guardian explains, “[t]o do this, birds use tube-like structures—parabronchi—which have sacs and capillaries all over them to allow for this simultaneous gas exchange.” Smoke damage can damage those bubbles, making it more difficult for birds to breathe.  With citizen scientists and birdwatchers aiding the cause, hopefully scientists will discover the cause of this mass die-off.

What You Can Do:  Sign up for iNaturalist, a partnership between the California Academy of Sciences and National Geographic, and start uploading what you find.  Everyone can help conserve biodiversity!  #30×30

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