LOS ALAMOS – Scientists believe a New Mexico plateau named for birds is seeing them die off because of climate change.
Jeanne Fair, a Los Alamos National Laboratory ornithologist, and other scientists at the laboratory recently released the results of a 10-year bird study on the Pajarito Plateau which shows “a 73 percent decrease in abundance and a 45 percent decrease in richness (variety of species) from 2003 to 2013,” the Santa Fe New Mexican reported last month.
Scientists believe a massive piñon tree die-off on the plateau may be a harbinger of things to come throughout the high-desert Southwest, where piñon trees – and the birds that frequent them – are potential markers for the effects of global warming.
The Pajarito Plateau, tucked in the Jemez Mountains, is the Spanish term for little birds.
After a wildfire in May 2000, the lab thinned trees in the area to lessen fire danger. A drought soon followed, and pinon stands were weakened, then attacked, by bark beetles.
The trees were healthy when the study began, but by 2004 they were mostly dead. Fair and her associates did bird counts on thinned areas on the lab and unthinned areas on the nearby Bandelier National Monument.
“We could see that immediately that the birds in both areas – so thinned and unthinned decreased – this large percent,” she said. “What they both have in common is that the piñon trees died.”
The study, just published in the Biological Conservation journal and Audubon magazine, concludes tree die-offs are expected to take place worldwide “due to climate-induced drought and increasing temperatures” and the result “may be a significant threat to bird communities in the southwestern U.S. and tree thinning to control fire may be an added risk.”
The U.S. Forest Service and Bandelier National Monument collaborated in the early stages of the research.
“It’s a very said irony that a plateau named for its bird abundance is now showing such a decline in bird species,” said biologist Jon Hayes, vice president and executive director of Audubon New Mexico.
“The fact that they are seeing decreased numbers of them is troubling because these are not rare birds,” Hayes said. “The pinyon jay is a huge one, that is the one we are most concerned with.”
Pinyon jays have a “mutualistic relationship” with the piñon, New Mexico’s state tree, and are a prime food source for the birds, Hayes said. The jays also disperse the tree’s seeds and are partly responsible for the piñon’s wide range.
Piñon trees are under threat worldwide, Hayes said. Numerous studies show pinon die-off from drought and bark beetle attacks cover a huge swath of the Southwest – from “Santa Fe to Flagstaff (Arizona) and everything in between,” Fair said.