‘Really powerful data source’: Here’s how to help birds affected by wildfire smoke, air pollution

Local News

Birds come in for a landing as birds perch on an electric wires in Los Angeles, California on December 10, 2017 where seasonal winds have fuelled recent wildfires and smoke across parts of the region.
Not only harmful to humans, smoke can also cause damage to lung tissue of birds leaving them open to respiratory infections, but birds have dealt with natural phenomenons like fire for millenium and if healthy, will usually fly away from fires before even being put in danger. / AFP PHOTO / FREDERIC J. BROWN (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

Utah (ABC4) – Wildfires across the west created smoggy conditions in certain Utah counties over the weekend that were dangerous for sensitive groups.

But birds, as well as humans are likely being affected by the wildfire smoke, though it’s not yet clear exactly how due to lack of research in the area of how they are affected by long-term exposure to poor air quality.

Russ Norvell is the Avian Conservation Program Coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

“Well, it’s a good question, and it’s not one we have a lot of information to know the answer. Some of the best and most recent information that comes from basically citizen science-based information has been correlated to air quality monitoring across places like the state of Washington…” he says.

And while experts don’t know much about how birds are affected long-term, they have some information about acute situations where they are located downwind from a large forest fire.

Up to 40% of birds are harder to detect in areas of high air pollution, and that could be because they leave the area, they stop singing, or they die.

“They do stop seeing as much, they stop moving around too much, they don’t feed as much,” Norvell explains.

“If you think about birds, their lungs take up a tremendous portion of their body size and a lot of air exchange service. We think they’re very likely to be affected by smoke more than we are,” he states. “But we haven’t really had a way of collecting information on that. These large scale-correlational studies are kind of really the beginning of that kind of work.”

However, more controlled, experimental situations show that pollutants and chemicals carried in the air can and do affect the development of nestlings. Norvell says this is happening right now.

“It’s the peak of breeding season, so even if there’s a lot of smoke in an area, the adults can’t leave their babies behind, so they’re going to stick close,” he states.

Individually, people can provide water in their yards and keep bird feeders clean to prevent the spread of disease to help birds. But more important is to support policy that helps to reign in wildfires.

“… the fundamental thing for birds is that we need to work to keep habitats healthy to support populations,” Norvell says. “Because things that birds need most are healthy environments with insects and things like that it’s hard for people to provide. Like, we can’t provide supplemental insect biomass really.”

Another way people can help is to go birding and collect data and information to share through naturalist citizen science apps such as eBird. Information collected by average people can become a “really powerful data source,” he tells ABC4.com.

“And those become a real data source for people like myself, researchers and managers, to be able to draw upon since we can’t possibly afford to send trained birders and technicians everywhere across the world. But there are people everywhere observing birds in their backyards and their favorite spaces.”

Nearly three billion birds have been lost since 1970, accord to a popular 2019 study.

“These are challenging times for birds and for conservation in particular. I hope that we can respond to what we now know. We have suspected and long intuited that there’s a bigger issue out there than we were really aware of and the scale of our work hasn’t been sufficient,” Norvell says. “We need to do more and faster… I hope that extends into the rest of our society so that we can actually move the needle on conservation in the right direction, because right now we’re not going in a good direction.”

He recommends that people who find injured or stranded birds contact local wildlife rehabilitators.

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