Doreen Van Ryswyk/USFWS


This fall, reports from New Mexico and other western states reported hundreds of dead birds and many others alive on the ground and clearly incapacitated. The true numbers aren’t known but certainly reached into the hundreds of thousands. This mass die-off shocked many and made news around the world. Scientists are still analyzing samples and testing theories, but the most likely culprits include an unusual cold snap along with the extensive fires and smoke.

Early studies reveal that the birds appeared to have oddly low body fat, suggesting that they had begun migration undernourished and underweight. Migratory birds need to put on extreme levels of body fat in order to complete the feat of long-distance migration. In this instance, it appears these birds were not prepared. Since a disproportionate number of the dead birds were insect eaters, it seems logical to conclude that either they weren’t able to find the insects they needed or something pushed them to  migrate before had they eaten enough to store the fat needed for their journey. If the research bears this out, it should be yet another warning to us here in Maine.

Western Maine is a destination for many types of migratory birds. They come here for the abundance of food in our forests. We already know from a major study in 2019 that bird populations have fallen by 30% since the 70s, and many types continue to lose ground today. In the face of these challenges, small changes like unusual weather, something we see more and more with warming temperatures, can have a dramatic impact on the health of birds and the insect populations they depend on.

This macabre event in the west, serves as a “canary in the coal mine”. It illustrates how quickly a cascade of events can tip the balance against survival with a wide range of creatures. The good news is that the converse seems to be true as well. Small changes can go a long way toward improving the survival odds of birds and other creatures. Setting aside conservation land, adopting sustainable practices in industry, agriculture and business and confronting the impact we are having on our climate will help ensure we are protecting habitat for all – birds, insects, plants and humans.

James Reddoch, of Albany Township and Boston, leads birding events for the Mahoosuc Land Trust. Visit Mahoosuc Land Trust at 162 North Road, Bethel, ME. To learn more, visit To contact James, send your emails to [email protected]

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