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Violet-green Swallow — By Rob Stoeltje

An unprecedented bird die-off — that’s how the September 16th article in Audubon described it. Groups of migrating birds were discovered lying dead in deserts, along rivers, in parks and backyards. Hundreds were strewn over the ground at White Sands National Park, an old missile range in New Mexico.

“A mass death event,” the article reads, but they don’t know what’s causing it, only that it’s impacting a huge variety of species: owls, swallows, warblers, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, and many more.

Here, in the Northeastern United States, the birds at my feeders seem fine. There are families of cardinals fattening up for the winter. They will stick around, bringing bright fire to my yard throughout the long, dark months of November through March.

The Blue Jays, House Sparrows, browning Goldfinches, and Tufted Titmice will all remain, safe from whatever horror is killing their migrating brethren in New Mexico, Colorado, and three other Southwestern states.

I don’t know how to explain my feelings about the birds, except that for me, they represent hope, and so I need them to be okay.

They’re not okay. The most recent article I could find about this grim phenomenon was published just three days ago in the Denver Post. The header image shows dozens of dead birds carefully lined up on a table, all in perfect condition (aside from the fact that they’re dead).

“The winged creatures are being found on bike paths and roads, hiking trails and driveways as if they plopped down from the sky,” the article reads.

Researchers across the affected states don’t have an explanation for what’s happening to the birds. They’re speculating that it’s a combination of factors including a stretch of extreme heat and drought followed by a rapid decrease in temperature (including very early snow), coupled with the intense and unprecedented wildfires, which spurred early migration for many species of birds.

But this is just a guess. We don’t know why so many birds are, quite literally, falling out of the sky, though the most likely cause, according to one scientist, is climate change.

Because, of course it is.

The expression, “canary in a coal mine,” comes from an old mining practice started in 1911 in Britain. Miners brought the tiny birds down into the darkness with them to detect carbon monoxide and other deadly gasses. Canaries are more sensitive to carbon monoxide than humans, so if they fell ill or died, they served as a warning — get out now.

This Smithsonian article from 2016 explains why birds are a perfect early warning system to detect toxic air:

“Canaries need such immense quantities of oxygen to enable them to fly and fly to heights that would make people altitude sick, their anatomy allows them to get a dose of oxygen when they inhale and another when they exhale, by holding air in extra sacs…they get a double dose of air and any poisons the air might contain, so miners would get an earlier warning.”

Shifting weather patterns leading to drought, fires, sudden, unexpected freezes, and the loss of habit — could this be why birds are falling out of the sky in New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, Arizona, and Nebraska?

What does it mean that hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of birds are dying right now across the Western United States?

It means we’re in trouble.

I’m not a scientist or an environmentalist or even a naturalist. But, I count myself among the more than 45 million birders in the U.S.

Clearly, I’m not alone in my love of birding. I belong to a Facebook group with thousands of local birders in my area of New York State. Bird feeders decorate my yard and the yards of my neighbors. The local wild bird rehabilitator in my area always has her hands full with rescues brought by concerned bird lovers who hope to save a bird that’s collided with a car or a window or a cat.

“I can’t imagine being a bird rehabilitator in the Southwest right now,” she recently posted. Like the rest of us, she is heartbroken.

She saves all the birds she can — one by one — trying to stop an ever-encroaching wave of death and extinction that’s becoming a tsunami.

The miners loved their birds too. They often spoke to them, and sang with them, viewing them as pets. They revived them when they could, but still they kept bringing them down into the murky darkness of the mines, far from air and light and freedom.

It’s our fault that they’re dying.

We may not know exactly what’s causing the mass die-off right now, but the evidence points to our own behavior.

Even before this latest, heartbreaking incident, we were losing birds by the billions — three billion, to be specific. Last September, the American Association for the Advancement of Science published disturbing research about the declining bird population in the US and Canada.

They found that there were three billion fewer birds now compared to 1970, a 29% decline of the total bird population in North America. The cause of this precipitous decline is us — birds colliding into residential windows, birds dying from pesticides and poisons, birds dying by the millions because of domestic cats, birds dying because their habitat is gone.

Numbers and statistics make my eyes glaze over. They fail to clarify how dire the situation is. After all, there are still birds at my feeders, blissfully gorging themselves on black oil sunflower seed and suet.

But sometimes I wonder what a backyard looked like in the 70s, with three billion extra birds to feed. Sometimes I can almost feel their absence in the moments of silence when the feeders dangle, abandoned, above a birdless expanse of empty yard.

What will this yard look like thirty years from now?

I’m a new birder. I discovered the joy of feeding and watching birds after I lost my 15-year-old daughter to cancer three and a half years ago.

There is something comforting about the fortitude of birds that helped me climb out of the darkest part of my sorrow. It was a place not unlike a coal mine, where no light penetrated. But the birds found me there and, like the canaries of old, they lead me to safety.

No, I’m not a scientist or an environmentalist or a naturalist. But I am a birder. I put my feeders out year round, hoping to help a few birds survive the harsh Northeast winters or fuel up before their long journey south in the fall.

Just like our local bird rehabilitator, I’m trying to save them — one bird at a time, because right now they need us. They’re trying to tell us something.

When birds fall out of the sky by the thousands it’s a warning. You don’t need to be a biologist to understand the message the birds are sending.

There is danger. Listen to us before it’s too late.

I hope it’s not too late — for the birds or for us. As we wrap up this last awful quarter of a truly horrendous year, I hope we will finally heed this message.

Written by

Occasional poet. Writer of sad essays. Novelist. Birder and amateur photographer. I enjoy trees.

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