The Bird Population is Dwindling in “The Land of Enchantment”

New Mexico, affectionately known as “The Land of Enchantment,” boasts a diverse landscape of steppes, desert mesas, and high-elevation alpine forests. But in recent years, it appears the state’s once impressive population of bird species is dwindling. In 2020, thousands of migratory birds were found dead throughout the state, and researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory believe it’s largely due to climate change.

While millions of birds fly across North America to migrate each year, many species experienced extreme weather events in 2020, most notably a period of excessively high temperatures in Colorado and New Mexico. Next came a sudden cold front soon followed by massive forest fires in the region that produced copious amounts of smoke. According to Jeanne Fair, a scientist at Los Alamos National Lab, there was a “mass mortality of birds” that happened “literally within a few days.”

These extreme changes weren’t just isolated to 2020 and many scientists believe they’re likely to happen again. As temperatures fluctuate outside of the norm during the migration season, it kills valuable food sources for birds like specific plants and insects. Without plentiful food readily available, many birds don’t have adequate fuel to help them on the long trek as they fly from one region to the next. In New Mexico’s case, the birds happened to die there, with the bulk of the animals found scattered across White Sands Missile Range.

Extreme Heat Poses a Serious Threat

In July 2023, parts of New Mexico saw triple-digit temperatures. According to UNM Professor of Biology, Blair Wolf, “Chronic heat really stresses birds and other wildlife.” Birds lose water through panting and must replenish the water they lose. Without proper access to shade and water, “This leads to increasing stress and water loss,” said Wolf. He also noted that he saw nestlings and dead adult birds at his home in Mimbres, New Mexico, including Purple Martins and Black Phoebes.

According to the Audubon Society, the increasing frequency of wildfires and dry conditions have led to the loss of pine trees that provide shade, food, and shelter for many bird species. A reduction in vegetation cover also affects nesting birds, while low levels in the Rio Grande have strained crucial ecosystems. The desertification of rangelands also has negative impacts on birds. The organization says New Mexico will likely experience more intense and frequent wildfires and decreased water flows in rivers in the coming decades.

Without swift, corrective action, the beautiful birds who depend on resources in The Land of Enchantment could lose over half of their current range as they search for more suitable habitats and climate conditions in other regions.