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New Mexico researchers ask public for info on bird die-off

LAS CRUCES – Researchers at New Mexico State University are inviting the public to share information on a recent mass die-off of migratory birds – right from their mobile phones.

Reports from around the state indicate migratory species are dying in numbers described as “unprecedented” Saturday by Martha Desmond, a professor in the university’s department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Ecology.

Last weekend, biologists from NMSU and White Sands Missile Range examined nearly 300 carcasses gathered at the range and in Doña Ana County. Based on photos, videos and written observations from locations statewide, Desmond anticipates the casualties are in the hundreds of thousands, “if not millions.”

On golf courses, hiking areas and residential neighborhoods, residents have reported birds of migratory species dying in groups and living birds exhibiting lethargic and unusual behavior – not eating, flying low or gathering on the ground and being hit by vehicles.

The affected birds included both insect- and seed-eaters, but did not appear to include resident species, such as roadrunner or quail. On Monday, she said the die-off might involve multiple causes, from drought conditions to early migration caused by wildfires in the western United States.

Desmond did not rule out the potential impact of unseasonably cold weather and early snowfall in northern New Mexico last week, but said southern New Mexico temperatures “shouldn’t be cold enough to kill birds.”

Also, large numbers of birds were found on White Sands Missile Range on Aug. 20, before the cold snap, with many reports of odd behavior and large die-offs preceding it.

Meanwhile, NMSU graduate student Allison Salas said the iNaturalist.org website and mobile app, a collaboration between the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society, can help researchers gather data on the species and regions where the die-off is taking place.

Salas set up the Southwest Avian Mortality Project within the app to allow members of the public to contribute their findings. Once a user locates the project, Salas said, “you can become a member and you can follow along to see everybody’s submissions to keep up to date with it.”

Users can post photos to the app from their cellphones and/or text descriptions of what they observe, while metadata from many devices can fill in the time and location of the photographs automatically.

The New Mexico Wildlife Center in Española confirmed Monday that the state Department of Game and Fish would collect bird carcasses from their facility Tuesday for laboratory analysis.

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