Wildfire smoke pushes migrating birds hundreds of miles out of their way

‘I was glued to my computer for days, trying to figure out what these birds were doing, because it was so clearly, obviously, not normal.’

 

Five Tule geese take off from Summer Lake Wildlife Area, Oregon, the primary stopover site of their four-day fall migration from Cook Inlet, Alaska, to California’s Sacramento Valley. Last year, due to wildfires, the journey for a handful of radio-collared geese took nine days, rather than the typical four.

Four radio-collared Tule geese left their summer breeding grounds near Alaska’s Cook Inlet in the fall of 2020 to head south for the winter. The migration typically takes about four days: The birds fly over the Gulf of Alaska, stay about 100 miles offshore from Canada and skirt Vancouver Island. They stop briefly to float and rest on the Pacific Ocean a handful of times and then gather en masse at Summer Lake in central Oregon before making the final push to California’s Sacramento Valley. Last summer, however, the migrating birds encountered dense wildfire smoke off the coast of British Columbia and over Washington — and that’s when their behavior got weird. 

One bird backtracked north almost 80 miles. Two spent nearly four days floating on the ocean before trying to head inland again; they ended up flying directly at the Beachie Creek Fire in Oregon and then climbing almost four times higher than usual to get over the huge plume of smoke. A fourth bird got turned around and headed much farther east than normal, all the way to Idaho. Tule geese typically prefer to overnight at wetlands, but these four stopped in bizarre locations instead, even landing once on the side of Mount Hood.

According to a study released by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in early October, the birds’ 2020 migration took twice as long as the 2019 migration — nine days versus four — and they flew an additional 470 miles, all to avoid wildfire smoke. The paper states that “megafires and thick smoke portend big problems for migratory birds,” as wildfires increasingly coincide with the beginning of fall migration: There were 68 active fires in California, Oregon and Washington when the geese passed through. Lengthier migrations require more energy and take more time to recover from. That could make it harder for the birds to reproduce, and even put them at risk of dying.

Map source: Overton et al., 2021

Cory Overton, a wildlife biologist at the USGS Western Ecological Research Center and the paper’s lead author, was watching the birds’ disjointed flights in real time, via GPS tracking. “I was glued to my computer for days, trying to figure out what these birds were doing, because it was so clearly, obviously, not normal,” Overton said. All four birds did, however, eventually make it to their preferred stopover in Oregon. 

Overton and his colleagues believe this marks the first time scientists were able to definitively document how wildfire smoke alters bird migration. The birds began to change their behavior when encountering fine particulate matter of 161 micrograms per cubic meter, which is just over the Environmental Protection Agency’s threshold for “very unhealthy” air for humans. Migrating birds across several Western states were found dead and dying the same summer and early fall, and other research found a correlation between the deaths and toxic air

Tule geese, a subspecies of the greater white-fronted goose, are a “species of special concern” in California due to their low population numbers; there are fewer than 10,000 of them. They’re especially vulnerable to flight obstacles because they follow the same route and stop at the same spots yearly. Overton and his colleagues were also tracking 12 additional waterfowl species, all of which migrate later in the fall than Tule geese. Smoke was almost gone from the Pacific Northwest by the time the others journeyed through the region. But as fire seasons in the West lengthen, scientists are concerned that smoke may hinder more migrations along the Pacific Flyway. Many shorebirds and songbirds are unable to store the extra energy needed to reroute around fires. 

Tule geese get ready to land at Summer Lake Wildlife Area, Oregon.

Experts in the bird research community are excited about the study. “We have a lot to learn about how wildfire smoke affects the health and behavior of animals, and in my opinion this is exactly the kind of research we need,” said Olivia Sanderfoot, a Ph.D. student who studies the impacts of air pollution on birds at the University of Washington. “While the researchers were only able to examine the migratory routes of four geese, which is a small sample size, their findings highlight the urgent need to unravel the mystery of how bird behavior is impacted by smoke.” Andrew Farnsworth, a researcher who studies migration at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, also praised the work.  He hopes the new knowledge will prompt thinking about what kinds of habitat and resources birds with altered migration routes might need to survive. “It’s a way of being able to think more broadly and actually prepare to avoid as much ecological drama as we can.”

Kylie Mohr is an editorial intern for High Country News writing from Montana. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

 

High Country News Classifieds
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • ARIZONA PROGRAM MANAGER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks an Arizona Program Manager. The Arizona Program Manager works...
  • CROWN OF THE CONTINENT COMMUNITY CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY is seeking a Community Conservation Specialist, for the Crown of the Continent DEPARTMENT: Conservation CLASSIFICATION: Grade 6 Specialist/Representative (Low of $54K) REPORTS...
  • ASSISTANT FARM DIRECTOR
    About The Organization Building community through fresh vegetables is at the heart of the Sisters-based non-profit, Seed to Table Oregon. Based on a four-acre diversified...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • DYNAMIC EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    VARD is seeking an Executive Director to lead a small legal & planning staff dedicated to the health and sustainability of Teton Valley Idaho and...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
  • PUBLIC LANDS COUNSEL
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!