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Seeking Higher Ground: What the warblers are telling us

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“Nothing gold can stay.” So wrote Robert Frost in 1923.

That phrase haunted me Friday after I saw a small golden bird – a Wilson’s warbler – staggering across my lawn. I kept one eager cat away, so maybe that bird survived.

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There has been a rash of bird deaths recently, so many that both New Mexico State University’s Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Ecology and Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife are looking into causes. The die-off first came to official notice last August when Ecologist Martha Desmond, a professor at New Mexico State University, began investigating a mass bird death at the White Sands Missile Range. 

At first, Desmond thought it was an isolated incident. 

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Gradually, wildlife officials discovered that the die-off extended across New Mexico numbering hundreds of thousands of deaths. The mortality reaches into Colorado too.

Over the summer, I buried three dead sparrows in my garden. In years past, I have at times found a single bird — usually one carrying trauma characteristic of a predator attack or window strike — but never three! None of those three, nor the fourth I found trapped and desiccated in my picket fence, showed any injury. (Unable to face burying number four, I left it for days. I was grateful to later discover that my husband had quietly removed its wasted body from the fence.)

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Wasted. That’s how it’s been with most of the dead birds.

My local bird watching friends have been seen deaths here, and in Eagle County, the Vail Daily cataloged more than 75 reports from locals. A disproportionate number were Wilson’s warblers. Again: no signs of trauma, just birds wasted away to little more than feathers and bones.

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After Michelle McBride posted in a local Facebook group about 50 to 100 dead birds discovered along the Frying Pan River, folks chimed in about dead birds in Redstone, Basalt, Glenwood, Silt and Craig. My friend Jae Gregory noticed dozens at Twin Lakes, including dead robins and even a dead duck. “It’s really beyond sad,” she wrote, “What we have done to them…”

Ecologist Desmond says that “we honestly do not know” what is killing the New Mexico and Colorado birds. Citizens are invited to visit inaturalist.org to contribute to data-gathering about the recent die-offs.

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It does, however,  appear that the recent avian deaths are concentrated among insect-eaters and that they are part of a longer trend. The National Audubon Society declared a “bird emergency” after a study found that the US and Canada suffered a 29 percent decrease in bird population over the past 50 years – about 2.9 billion birds! A meta-analysis published this year in the journal Science found that, worldwide, terrestrial insects are declining at about nine percent per decade with water insects dying a bit faster. 

Is it, as Jae thinks, due to something we humans have done?

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Desmond suspects that our early Colorado snowstorm pushed the warblers to migrate before they were ready. It may be that “fires across the western United States forced some of them to change their migratory routes” and that “some of them could have some smoke damage” to their lungs. Drought and lack of plants, leading to a lack of insects, could also be factors. 

All those things — change of rain patterns, drought, fires, wildly uneven seasons and disruption of ecological food chains — are characteristics of global warming. 

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We have met the enemy, and he is us.

In 2013, in its fifth report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that it is “extremely likely that more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature” from 1951 to 2010 was caused by human activity.

Just this month, Inger Anderson, who heads the United Nations’ environmental program, commented on mankind’s failure to meet decade-long biodiversity goals set in 2010. “From COVID-19 to massive wildfires, floods, melting glaciers and unprecedented heat,” she stated, “our failure to meet the Aichi (biodiversity) targets — protect our home — has very real consequences. We can no longer afford to cast nature to the side.”

I am trying not to “sink to grief,” but I know that those little gold warblers, dying in the thousands, are messengers of Gaia. They’re the proverbial canaries in a coal mine, warning us we have very, very little time. 

Last Saturday, the clock on New York City’s Metronome building flashed up the message, “The Earth has a deadline.” The digits 7:103:15:40:07 then appeared; they number the years, days, hours, minutes and seconds we have to prevent the effects of global warming from becoming irreversible.

“Nature’s first green is gold,” wrote Robert Frost, “Her hard hue to hold…leaf subsides to leaf. So Eden sank to grief. So dawn goes down to day. Nothing gold can stay.”

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