Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Today is the LAST DAY of this Mid-Year Campaign. This is our hour of need.
If you value independent journalism, please support Common Dreams.

TODAY is the last day to meet our goal -- Join the small group of generous readers who donate, keeping Common Dreams free for millions of people each year.

One of the hundreds of dead birds reported throughout New Mexico over the past two weeks. (Photo: Allison Salas/New Mexico State University)

'Ecological Disaster on Massive Scale': Hundreds of Thousands of Dead Migratory Birds in Southwest Linked to Wildfires, Climate Crisis

"The fact that we're finding hundreds of these birds dying, just kind of falling out of the sky is extremely alarming."

Julia Conley

A combination of factors—all related to the climate crisis—is believed to be behind one of the largest mass bird die-off events in recent memory in the Southwest, according to biologists.

Scientists say thousands of dead migratory birds have been found across states including New Mexico, Texas, and Colorado in recent weeks as the American West faces wildfires that have burned through millions of acres in matter of days.

Dr. Martha Desmond, a biology professor at New Mexico State University (NMSU), told The Guardian that the die-off, which was first detected in late August, is a "national tragedy."

"I collected over a dozen in just a two-mile stretch in front of my house," Desmond told the newspaper. "To see this and to be picking up these carcasses and realizing how widespread this is, is personally devastating."

Allison Salas, a graduate student at NMSU, reported on Twitter that the university is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to understand the causes of the die-off, which ornithologists have linked to smoke from the wildfires as well as a drought in the Southwest. 

"The fact that we're finding hundreds of these birds dying, just kind of falling out of the sky is extremely alarming," Salas told The Guardian. "The volume of carcasses that we have found has literally given me chills."

"It's different this year than other years. We've had plenty of hot summers but very few that have had these huge-scale fires combined with heat combined with drought."
—Dr. Andrew Farnsworth, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Researchers say the birds are mainly migratory birds—such as warblers, swallows, and flycatchers—which travel to Central and South America from Canada and Alaska each year as the weather grows colder. Resident bird species don't appear to be affected. 

Based on the large volumes of dead birds found throughout the region since August 20, when the first group was found at White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico, ornithologists believe thousands of birds could already be dead. Desmond told the Las Cruces Sun News that "hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of migratory birds" could be lost in the die-off.

When migrating from Canada, bird species must stop every few days to gather food, drink water, and rest. With wildfires overwhelming the West Coast, scientists say birds may have been pushed into desert areas in New Mexico—which has been suffering from a drought—where food and water sources are scarce. 

Changes in the birds' northern habitat, caused by the heating of the planet, may also have pushed the species to begin their migration earlier than usual this year, before building up fat reserves which would have helped sustain them on the journey. 

"We're kind of coming at them from all sides," Salas told The Guardian. "If we don't do anything to protect their habitat we're going to lose large numbers of the populations of several species."

Desmond told WBUR that upon arriving in the drought-stricken Southwest, "a lot of birds up north were probably caught off guard."

Since August 20, two doctoral candidates at the University of New Mexico discovered 305 dead birds in the northern part of the state and linked the deaths to starvation. Trish Cutler, a wildlife biologist at White Sands Missile Range, told KOB, a local TV station in Albuquerque, that "a couple of hundred" dead birds were found at the weapons testing site last week, compared with the fewer than half a dozen carcasses that are found there on a weekly basis. 

Dr. Andrew Farnsworth of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology told the New York Times that extremely poor air quality in the West, caused by the wildfires, is likely a contributing factor to the die-off as well.

"It's different this year than other years," Farnsworth told the Times. "We've had plenty of hot summers but very few that have had these huge-scale fires combined with heat combined with drought."

Environmental justice advocates on social media decried the "ecological disaster" detected in the Southwest. 

"The signs are everywhere," tweeted consumer advocate Erin Brockovich. "Mother Nature is done with us, and who can blame her?"


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

TODAY is the last day of our crucial Mid-Year Campaign and we might not make it without your help.
Who funds our independent journalism? Readers like you who believe in our mission: To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. No corporate advertisers. No billionaire founder. Our non-partisan, nonprofit media model has only one source of revenue: The people who read and value this work and our mission. That's it.
And the model is simple: If everyone just gives whatever amount they can afford and think is reasonable—$3, $9, $29, or more—we can continue. If not enough do, we go dark.

All the small gifts add up to something otherwise impossible. Please join us today. Donate to Common Dreams. This is crunch time. We need you now.

Biden Urged to Embrace Windfall Tax as Exxon Says Profits Doubled in Second Quarter

"It's time for the president to demand that Congress pass a windfall profits tax on Big Oil and use the revenue to provide rebates to consumers NOW!" wrote Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Jake Johnson ·


Texas Supreme Court Allows Century-Old Abortion Ban to Take Effect

"Extremist politicians are on a crusade to force Texans into pregnancy and childbirth against their will, no matter how devastating the consequences."

Jake Johnson ·


'What's There to Even Discuss?' Omar Says Free, Universal School Meals Should Be Permanent

"We have an opportunity to prove that a government of the people, by the people, and for the people can still deliver big things. And we can feed tens of millions of hungry kids while we do it."

Jake Johnson ·


'Stark Betrayal': Biden Administration Floats New Offshore Oil and Gas Drilling

"This is the third time since November the Biden administration has announced new oil and gas leasing plans on the Friday before a holiday," said one climate advocate. "They're ashamed, and they should be."

Jake Johnson ·


As US Rolls Back Reproductive Rights, Sierra Leone Moves to Decriminalize Abortion

"I'm hopeful today's announcement gives activists in the U.S., and especially Black women given the shared history, a restored faith that change is possible and progress can be made."

Brett Wilkins ·

Common Dreams Logo