As smoky air becomes more common during Washington’s wildfire season, many wildlife enthusiasts wonder: What happens to the birds?

Few studies have looked at wildfire smoke impacts on animals, let alone birds. And as Washington and the larger West Coast continue to experience more massive wildfires and smoke-filled air, understanding how birds are affected by smoke — and how air pollution may influence our ability to detect birds — are important factors for bird conservation.

Researchers from the University of Washington now provide a first look at the probability of observing common birds as air pollution worsens during wildfire seasons. They found that smoke affected the ability to detect more than a third of the bird species studied in Washington state over a four-year period. Sometimes smoke made it harder to observe birds, while other species were actually easier to detect when smoke was present. The results were published June 29 in the journal Ornithological Applications.

“We want to know how wildfire smoke affects birds and other wildlife, and this study is a great place to start,” said lead author Olivia Sanderfoot, a doctoral candidate in the UW School of Environmental and Forest Sciences. “Smoke clearly has an impact on detection of wildlife, and that hasn’t been adequately explored in the literature to date. Now we know that smoke pollution specifically affects our observations of birds and our ability to detect them.”

The researchers combined data from eBird, an online citizen-science program managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, with publicly available data from an extensive network of air quality monitors across Washington state. They were able to analyze how fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5 and a marker of smoke pollution, affected the probability of observing 71 common bird species during the wildfire seasons of 2015 to 2018. Higher concentrations of smoke affected the chances of observing 37%, or 26, of the bird species included in the study.

Read more at UW News »