The tragic bird mortality event that occurred in the Southwest at the beginning of September should act as a sad reminder of pressures and anthropologic influences on the natural world. The evidence of negative effects on diverse ecosystems, which are more delicate than we want to believe, are becoming more common and dramatic. Though the reason for the sudden deaths of so many birds is still being investigated, we are learning that it was not just songbirds affected. During this short time period, Flammulated Owls were also being found either dying or dead.
The Flammulated Owl is one of the smallest owl species found in North America. Its range is southern Canada, North and South Western United States during the breeding period and summers; then migrating down to Mexico and Central America in the winter. It is a nocturnal insectivore with hunting behaviors similar to that of flycatchers. These two characteristics could be evidence as to why it was part of the die off. It is a migrating bird that feeds almost entirely on insects.
I found a Flammulated Owl on September 12th at the Randall Davey Audubon Center. It was on the ground in the open and was lethargic. Besides being the Center Assistant at the Audubon Center, I am a volunteer with the Santa Fe Raptor Center. I put the bird in a cardboard box and arranged to meet Lori (the Raptor Center Director). Initially, we both checked the bird for injury, starvation or dehydration. Lori explained to me key things to look for and though the bird wasn’t externally injured nor showing immediate signs of starvation/dehydration, the fact that I was able to pick up this wild, nocturnal animal in the middle of the day was a bad sign.
A few days later I checked in with Lori regarding the owl. She told me that it had not made it through the night. She also stated that she had received two other Flammulated Owls and they both passed within 48 hours. She had also received four other calls regarding Flammulated Owls being found dead. I decided to check in with the New Mexico Wildlife Center in Espanola to see if they had also received owls. They informed me that they had been given three Flammulated Owls: two living (both with injuries) and one dead, all of whom died within 48 hours. Whether or not these birds and the thousands of songbirds lost all died from the same thing has still not been determined. All the owls were sent to labs to get testing for cause of death. It is curious however that they were all insectivores and migrating south. Questions of the heavy smoke, cold snap and lack of food have all be speculated as the driving factors for this event. Whatever the cause, the fact is many birds were lost and though our influence as humans may not have been the immediate causation, our negative environmental impacts are a factor in this issue that we hope will not reoccur.