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Bird die-offs highlight need to do more for local ecology

Evidence of a recent mass die-off of migratory birds in New Mexico made national and local headlines. The episode provided a striking example of the public’s concern for these charismatic creatures, and demonstrates the role that citizen science – a collective effort – can play in helping to protect species that are necessary for the health of ecosystems. However, the response to this event highlights the need for broader actions to address our ongoing biodiversity crisis and the need for additional research.

In the case of the recent migratory bird deaths, investigations into causes continue. It appears wildfires and the extreme weather events in mid-September played a major role, but those are just two factors threatening birds. Long-term declines have been attributed to habitat loss and degradation, building window hazards, feral cats, and declining food availability. In addition to the threats posed by humans, migrating birds arriving in New Mexico also have the added challenge of finding suitable protection from weather and predators in a new environment.

ABQ BioPark is engaged at every stage of bird conservation through educational outreach, direct action and research. The BioPark offers many educational opportunities, including monthly docent-led bird walks, and events during the great backyard bird count – a great opportunity for first-time birders. In 2017, the BioPark partnered with several organizations to create the Albuquerque Urban Bird Coalition, consisting of city, federal and local entities to expand public awareness of migratory birds. The coalition has collaborated on several projects, including the creation of a map of Albuquerque birding hot spots, new events for World Migratory Bird Day, and the development of a Backyard Refuge Guide which shows how to create microhabitats for native wildlife at home.

Birds are highly visible and audible members of local ecosystems. They pass through cities, captivate our imaginations, and enthrall numerous birders, whose records contribute to an incredible wealth of knowledge about their distribution and behavior. This network has enabled rapid assessment of the distribution and magnitude of bird die-offs, including the most recent event, through citizen-science platforms like iNaturalist.

The ABQ BioPark staff also recognizes that, in light of the impacts of climate change, more needs to be done to address the threats to habitats and species here in New Mexico and globally. The extinction risk of every described bird species – over 11,000 in total – has been assessed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. This level of coverage allows us to engage in comprehensive planning and modeling to predict the impact of future changes on bird populations, and build appropriate strategies to mitigate risks. Zoos are often critical to these efforts when threats can be identified early. Birds at the BioPark like the Guam Kingfisher – a species extinct in the wild, but thriving through captive populations in zoos – help us to tell the story of conservation successes and species saved through these efforts.

Unfortunately, while the extinction risk of bird species has been well-documented, less than 12% of all described plant species, and around 1% of insect species, have been similarly assessed. For these less-visible groups, mass mortality events like those observed in birds this summer may have dire consequences to already small populations and could quietly extinguish an entire species.

To address these shortfalls, ABQ BioPark and the New Mexico BioPark Society have hired a team of researchers who have thus far contributed to the assessment of extinction risk for over 1,500 species of fish, insects and plants. We’re also innovating new ways to build a more sustainable and equitable world through collaborations with Southwest Indian Polytechnic Institute and the University of New Mexico by developing training programs, opportunities for students, and broader outreach to bring the magnitude of the biodiversity crisis to the attention of New Mexicans. Together, we can address this crisis and ensure thriving ecosystems are protected and managed.

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