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Wildfire smoke makes it harder to observe birds

Set against the backdrop of record breaking heat waves and an increase in wildfires, scientists from the University of Washington wanted to know how wildfire smoke impacts birds. 

Instead of directly observing what effect smoke has on birds, the researchers noticed that smoke makes some birds harder to observe. Interestingly enough, they also found that smoke makes some species easier to watch. 

The research team looked at the probability of observing 71 species of common birds during wildfire seasons as opposed to other times.

The scientists found that larger amounts of wildfire smoke changed the probability of seeing 37 percent of the bird species, including 16 species that were harder to see when the air was smokey. Some of the birds that were harder to find were raptors, vultures, Canada geese and some gulls. 

There are several possible reasons birds may be harder, or easier, to observe because of smoke. It may be that wildfire smoke irritates or otherwise makes birds of prey relocate, which in turn allows other birds to be more active without the presence of predators. 

Another potential explanation is that smaller birds fly lower to avoid the smoke, making them more readily observable. Either way, the scientists hope that others follow up their research and look closer at how smoke affects wildlife, a topic lacking in research. 

The importance of this study is great for wildlife managers, who rely on observing animals to make decisions and carry out research. If smoke is changing how we observe animals, it may be important for wildlife managers and conservationists to take that into account.

“If we see or hear birds more or less frequently because of smoke, that also impacts bigger inferences we make in terms of how certain bird populations are doing,” said study senior author Professor Beth Gardner.

“We want to get that part right, so we first need to understand the effect of air pollution on how we’re seeing birds in the wild.”

The study is published in the June 19th issue of Ornithological Applications.

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer

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