The Extinction Chronicles

An impartial record of articles and events leading up to the end…

The Extinction Chronicles

Female hummingbirds dressed in male plumage get harassed less

“They avoid the bullies by looking like them.”

Amanda KooserAug. 27, 2021 12:41 p.m. PTLISTEN- 01:43

This is what a male white-necked Jacobin hummingbird looks like, but some of the adult females also wear the same feathery look.Brian Sullivan/Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Hummingbirds are famous for fast flights, bright colors and constantly needing food to support their high-energy activities. 

White-necked jacobin hummingbird males sport eye-catching blue, green and white feathers, while most adult females have a more muted green look. But some of the females actually look like the males, and it turns out there are distinct advantages to that fashion statement.

A team led by Cornell University researchers studied white-necked jacobin hummingbirds in Panama and found that almost 30% of the adult females look like the males. The hummingbirds are a bit unusual in that the juveniles all sport male-like plumage. The adult males retain that appearance, while most of the adult females grow into the muted colors.CNET SCIENCE

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“Our tests found that the typical less colorful females were harassed much more than females with male-like plumage,” said ornithologist Jay Falk, now with the University of Washington, in a Cornell statement on Thursday. “Because the male-plumaged females experienced less aggression, they were able to feed more often — a clear advantage.”  

From left to right are the plumages of white-necked Jacobin hummingbird adult females, adult males and juveniles.Jillian Ditner, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Falk is the lead author of a paper on the hummingbirds published in the journal Current Biology this week. The researchers tagged birds to monitor their meals at a series of feeders. The study found that the male-plumaged females spent about 35% longer at the feeders than typical females. 

The researchers also monitored hummingbird behavior toward taxidermy versions of the birds, and found that the ones with female plumage received more aggressive and sexual attention.

As Cornell put it, “female white-necked jacobins retain the male-like plumage of their youth for social reasons. They avoid the bullies by looking like them.”

The hummingbirds in the study aren’t alone. There are other hummingbird species with some females dressed in male plumage. The ability to minimize social harassment and get more sustenance in a competitive environment is plenty of reason to rock the menswear-inspired look.

Why it matters that climate change is shrinking birds


Why it matters that climate change is shrinking birds

© Istock

Many of the benefits that humanity derives from the natural world, like the provisioning of oxygen, are priceless. Those ecosystem services that can have a dollar value assigned to them, for example the pollination of crops, generate far more value for humanity each year than the entirety of the global economy. Climate change can threaten these services through the loss of species or shifts in species’ size or abundance. For example, warming temperatures have reduced the size of many birds over the last four decades; this is emblematic of the scale of climate change impacts on the world’s biological diversity. There is an urgent need for action.

Shrinking birds are indicative of a much bigger problem

Scientists have long predicted that increasing temperatures would drive reductions in body size across the tree of life, but testing this requires huge amounts of data collected consistently over decades. This type of data is only available for a tiny fraction of the world’s species, including some North American birds.

Recently, a study based on over 70,000 North American bird specimens found that warming temperatures have been shrinking birds for the past 40 years. Because size determines organisms’ behaviors, survival and contributions to the functioning of natural systems, widespread shrinking of birds has important implications for the ecosystem services that birds provide to people.

North American birds are not the only group of species that are shrinking. Marine ectotherms, or cold-blooded animals (e.g., most fish), are getting smaller in response to warming temperatures. This group of species feeds billions of people around the world each year. Understanding the impacts of widespread size reductions on the productivity of this system is clearly of global significance.

While scientists have only been able to test whether there have been warming-driven size reductions for a small fraction of the world’s species, there is reason to believe that this may be a widespread problem. A long-standing observation, known as Bergmann’s Rule, holds that individuals tend to be smaller in the warmer parts of a species’ geographical range. In a temporal analog to Bergmann’s Rule, scientists have predicted that plants and animals will get smaller as humans warm the world.

While some large sets of species have uniformly gotten smaller as temperatures increased, there is also evidence that size responses to warming can be variable among species. However, the potential that not all species will shrink is not cause for comfort. If species in a community are responding to climate change in different ways, with only some getting smaller, the changes in relative size can impact how species relate to each other and the environment. These changes may have cascading impacts up or down food webs, again disrupting essential natural systems.

In addition to improving our understanding of which species are getting smaller as a result of increasing temperatures, further research is needed to refine our understanding of why higher temperatures are causing decreases in size. Both a better understanding of the patterns of warming-driven size reductions across the world’s species, and the mechanisms underlying this phenomenon are needed to predict future impacts of warming on the natural systems that support humanity.

The problem is complex, but the path forward is clear

We are warming plants and animals at a global scale, and how they respond will shape our future in untold ways. Despite the enormous importance of the impacts of climate change on the world’s biological diversity, we are remarkably limited in our capacity to monitor the effects of rising temperatures on most of the world’s species. This should change. The scope of the data necessary to understand biological responses to climate change exceeds the scale of what is feasible for individual researchers or even institutions to collect. A massive increase in investment in the natural sciences is needed to expand our ability to understand and predict the impacts of climate change on plants and animals. The development of large-scale coordinated efforts to collect data on natural systems should be a policy priority.

It is also important to recognize that the impacts of climate change are occurring in a world that has already been heavily modified by human activities. Species and ecosystems are reeling from the effects of habitat loss and the introduction of invasive species.

Efforts to mitigate the impacts of climate change must go hand-in-hand with efforts to conserve and expand habitat and reduce the spread of invasive species if we are to reverse the ongoing loss of ecosystem services. This will only be achieved if policymakers recognize that the value captured in economic markets is dwarfed by the value of ecosystem services that are outside of those markets, and mitigating the combined impacts of climate change, habitat loss and invasive species on the natural systems that are essential to human persistence is the most important governance challenge of our time. Maintaining functional natural systems should not be an afterthought, it should be a central component of any policy initiative.

Addressing these challenges is urgent. Bird populations have declined so drastically that this year, there are 3 billion fewer birds in North America than there were in 1970 — the proverbial canaries in the coal mine are dropping dead all around us. The world’s biological diversity and the ecosystem services it provides to all of us are our natural heritage; we all stand to benefit from an improved understanding of the world around us, and the effective conservation of ecosystems and the services they provide.

Brian Weeks is an assistant professor in the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan. 

Why are songbirds dropping dead in Maryland, Delaware and West Virginia?

Shannon Marvel McNaughtDelaware News JournalView CommentsAD2:21

Delaware is the latest state to discover a mysterious sickness among songbirds, with at least 50 dead birds reported so far.

The cause is not yet known, but affected birds are “stricken by an unknown disorder characterized by swollen eyes with crusty discharge, as well as neurological signs such as erratic flight and stumbling,” the Delaware Department of Natural Resource and Environmental Control said in a news release Wednesday.

Many of the Delaware cases are occurring in New Castle County, according to DNREC spokesperson Nikki Lavoie. Samples of affected Delaware birds have been sent to the Pennsylvania Animal Diagnostic Laboratory in New Bolton Center, Pennsylvania.

USA TODAY:Hundreds of birds are appearing disoriented and then dying, and experts don’t know why

Maryland’s cases “have been found primarily in our central/northern counties,” according to Maryland Department of Natural Resources spokesman Gregg Bortz.

Reports of the unknown illness appear to have started in Washington D.C. in mid-May. It’s now being investigated there and in at least eight mid-Atlantic and central states, including Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and West Virginia.

Juvenile birds appear to be more affected than adults, with European starlings, blue jays and common grackles the most common victims, according to DNREC. Other states have also reported northern cardinals, American robins, house sparrows and brown-headed cowbirds as affected by the illness.

Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center ornithologist Brian Evans told NPR the bird deaths appear to be centered in Washington, D.C. Some are hypothesizing they’re related to the Brood X cicadas, Evans said. Both emerged in roughly the same time and place.

RELATED:Kentucky officials need your help to record unexplained bird deaths

This blue jay with obvious eye problems is one of the Indiana songbirds with a mysterious disease that is sickening and killing birds in Indiana and seven other states.

In Indiana, samples from sick birds tested negative for avian flu and West Nile virus, according to the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

Wildlife health experts recommend people take the following steps to contain the illness as much as possible:

  • Stop providing food in bird feeders (including for hummingbirds) and water in bird baths until further notice
  • Clean feeders and baths with a 10% bleach solution before using them again
  • Avoid handling wild birds and wear disposable gloves if you must
  • Keep domestic pets away from sick or dead wild birds
  • If you must remove dead birds, place them in a sealable plastic bag to dispose of with household trash.

MORE:Seeing sick or dead birds in your area? Here’s how to report them in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana

In Delaware, if you observe a live wild bird exhibiting the described symptoms, contact Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research at 302-737-9543. If you find a dead wild bird, contact the DNREC Division of Fish and Wildlife at 302-735-3600 and press 2 on your phone keypad as soon as the automated begins. 

More Birds Bring More Happiness, According to Science

A pair of new studies show how birds improve our wellbeing, adding to a growing body of evidence that avians are an antidote to our despair.By Julia ZarankinContributor, Audubon magazineJanuary 05, 2021

Birds in This Story

Red-winged BlackbirdAgelaius phoeniceus
American WoodcockScolopax minor

Popular Stories

Red-winged Blackbird singing at dawn. Photo: Paul Sparks/Alamy

Birds Tell Us to Act on Climate

Pledge to stand with Audubon to call on elected officials to listen to science and work towards climate solutions.Sign the Pledge

Birds Tell Us to Act on Climate

When I was in the midst of a thorny career transition and in the process of auditioning hobbies, I assumed my curiosity about birds was a transitory flirtation. But then I saw the Red-winged Blackbird. The fiery vermillion patches on the bird’s epaulets, contrasting sharply with its glistening, jet-black bodysuit, caught me off guard. I hadn’t expected such a slick outfit. After all, my knowledge of the avian world had been limited to pigeons. But watching this bird balance on a cattail, utterly majestic in its attire, I couldn’t help but marvel. 

I’m not sure which I found more shocking—that the birds turned out to beone of the most common harbingers of spring here in Canadaand not the rare migrants I had initially assumed, or that I likely walked by Red-winged Blackbirds hundreds of times, but had never stopped to look and imbibe their magnificence. These birds made me wonder in earnest, what else had I been missing? I blame that moment 12 years ago for everything that happened afterward, including my deep entanglement in a mid-life love affair with birds that resulted in my October 2020 book, Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder

Now that we’ve entered the time of New Year’s resolutions, eager for a fresh start after such a difficult year, I believe more strongly than ever that birding is the antidote to despair. This feeling has resonated with many in these uncertain pandemic times. Birding has seen an explosion of interest as an ideal activity that can be practiced near home and with safe social distancing. During the initial waves of the pandemic last spring, for example, usage of Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird app and participation in its Global Big Day hit new records. Sales of bird seed, bird houses, and other birding supplies have soared this year as more people have spent time looking up.

A growing body of scientific evidence also shows that the joy delivered by birds isn’t just anecdotal. Research increasingly links exposure to nature—and specifically, exposure to birds—with improved wellbeing. In December, a new study by the German Center for Integrative Biodiversity Research connected greater bird biodiversity to increased life-satisfaction for more than 26,000 people in 26 European countries. It turns out the people who live near natural areas with a greater diversity of bird species were demonstrably happier. In fact, the study found that seeing 10 percent more bird species generates satisfaction on par with a comparable increase in income.

Seeing a wide array of birds isn’t the only thing that affects our moods: so does hearing them.

Seeing a wide array of birds isn’t the only thing that affects our moods: so does hearing them. According to another recent study from researchers at Cal Poly, hikers who listened to birdsong while ambling on a trail have a more positive overall experience and feel greater joy. Birders know this intuitively; birdsong uplifts us largely because it restores our faith in the natural order of the world and in the health of ecosystems. This is precisely what makes Rachel Carson’s opening chapter of Silent Spring, in which she foresees the danger of a world devoid of birdsong, such an arresting wakeup call: “On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.”

There’s no other way to say it: Birds really do make us happy. They force us to stop and pay close attention, to notice details more acutely. When we’re out birding, we’re experiencing the joy of being fully immersed in the present moment—very much in line with what mindfulness practices advocate. And since birds couldn’t care less about our petty concerns, they serve as powerful reminders that we are part of something larger than just the world inside our own heads. When I see the spectacular aerial mating dance of the American Woodcock—the pouty greyish-brown shorebird flinging himself into the high ether while peenting, doing a series of colossal circles in the air and descending to riotous raptures from the female—I look at the world with more wonder. 

When I first became a birder, I will admit, to my great embarrassment, I feared that spring migration might become boring after I’d already seen all the warblers. Now, I just shake my head at that person I once was. If anything, my joy in spring has become more intense, with my internal calendar recalibrated to anticipate the month of May. I now know I’ll never be bored of birds: They regularly surprise me with their ingenious behaviors, imaginative adaptive skills, resilience, and colossal determination. Watching birds closely, whether at one’s feeder or in the field, is a full-on, multi-sensory experience that brings joy—coupled with humbling, yet inevitable misidentifications—and exhilarating moments of discovery. Is there anything more fulfilling? 

Raining Dead Crows in Russian City Sparks Doomsday Fear [VIDEO]

The recent incident has made many people believe that something disastrous is going to happen very soon

Several doomsday mongers believe that humanity is currently going through the end times, and recent world events are indicating the possibility of an imminent apocalypse. Adding up the heat to this already existing panic on online spaces, a mass die-off of crows above a secretive nuclear Russian city has made many speculate that conspiracy theories surrounding doomsday are turning true.

The incident took place in the city of Balakovo, and the authorities are now investigating the event. Some experts are trying to connect it with avian flu. However, a section of other people has suggested that this mass death event could be connected to the nuclear plant in the city.

Mysterious Event in Russia

bird death
Dead birds in a Russian road YouTube: THEREALGSNEWS

The local Saratov Veterinary Department has apparently started an investigation, and they have collected samples of biomaterials to test for bird flu.

However, doomsday mongers claim that this mass death could be related to something dangerous that is going to happen in the coming days. Several social media users claim that similar bird deaths had happened days before the Chernobyl disaster. They also urge authorities from Moscow to investigate the event.

Mysterious Bird Deaths in US

A few days back, a similar incident happened in areas of Colorado and New Mexico where thousands of birds dropped dead. Even though the reason behind this mass death event is unknown, several experts believe that a sudden plunge in temperature and heavy snowfall might have resulted in the death of these birds.

“It appears to be an unprecedented and a very large number. I’ve never seen anything like this in New Mexico in recent times,” said Martha Desmond, a professor at New Mexico State University’s department of fish, wildlife, and conservation ecology. Scientists are also investigating whether the recent wildfires in the US have a role behind these mass deaths, as smoke plumes loaded with poison could have inhaled by these birds.

Ornithologists, Birdwatchers Uncover Staggering Magnitude of Bird Population Decline By Ari Dub

Bird species across North America are declining at a far more drastic rate than previously expected.


Bird species across North America are declining at a far more drastic rate than previously expected.

September 26, 2019
Correction appended.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology conservation scientist Dr. Ken Rosenberg led an international team of 12 scientists in an analysis of decades of data on bird population — and the conclusion is disturbing. In the last 50 years, one in four birds in North America has disappeared.

Pesticide use and loss of habitat to farmland are some of the most significant contributors to the decline in bird populations, according to Rosenberg. Although scientists have known for a long time that certain bird species were threatened by human activities, this study reveals that these issues apply to birds of nearly all species.

“Seeing this net loss of three billion birds was shocking,” Rosenberg said.

The infographics show that while all bird communities in almost ecological zones have suffered, grassland birds have suffered the greatest, experiencing a 53 percent decline over the past 50 years. Some specific species have been particularly hard-hit. In the same time frame, six out of every 10 wood thrushes, three out of every four eastern meadowlarks and nine out of every 10 evening grosbeaks have vanished.


But there are two sides to this conclusion, Rosenberg said. Successful conservation efforts have meant that certain bird species, such as bald eagles, falcons and ducks, have increased in population. Falcons have increased by four times, and waterfowl have more than doubled. “These are stories of hope, resilience and success,” Rosenberg said.

One of the most important efforts of bird conservation is the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, an agreement originally between the U.S. and Canada which prohibits most killings, sales or tamperings with migratory birds. This includes a ban on the collection or sale of any part of a bird, including feathers or nests. Since 1918, the MBTA has been expanded to include Mexico, Japan and Russia, and more recent programs, such as Southern Wings, allow U.S. states to put money into international conservation projects.

Understanding where birds travel is a crucial part of effective conservation efforts, Rosenberg said. Because of technological advances in bird tracking abilities, there has been a boom in migratory connectivity — the study of migratory species through multiple life cycle stages.

Yet in recent years, the United States has moved backward in its bird conservation efforts, threatening to cancel the benefits of policies like the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, according to Rosenberg. These days, Canada is the North American leader in bird conservation.

“One of our key messages is that it’s time for the 40 to 50 million of birdwatchers in the U.S. alone to raise our voices,” Rosenberg said. This task falls heavily on the shoulders of birdwatchers because the threat is not only to game birds, who historically have been strongly defended by hunters. Now, it is common birds like sparrows and robins that are in need of conservation.

Already, Rosenberg and the study’s co-authors have been met with a “massive and overwhelmingly positive response” from individuals as well as many major news organizations. Rosenberg said one of the merits of Cornell is that the University has good mechanisms for publicity.

Birdwatchers have always been crucial to the work of ornithologists, not just in their role as activists but “the eyes of the world,” as Rosenberg described it.

Volunteers take bird counts through standardized processes, such as the Christmas Bird Count and the Breeding Bird Survey, which then goes back to scientists for analysis.

These volunteer researchers are “amateurs in the best sense,” according to Wesley Hochachka, a senior research associate at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “They are knowledgeable and passionate about the study of birds and bird conservation.”

“There’s something about birds that capture people’s imaginations,” Hochachka said. Because of the dedicated work of these volunteers, ornithologists have more data than other animal scientists, according to Rosenberg.

The collaboration that exists at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has enabled the use of weather radar data to study bird population, according to Emma Greig, the leader of Project FeederWatch, which facilitates data collection among volunteer bird watchers. Weather radars pick up the biomass of migrating birds, and this entirely independent data source was used to confirm the data from bird counts — over the last 11 years, the biomass of birds migrating in the spring dropped by 14 percent.

Moving forward, important areas to study are the causes of this population decline, as well as the stage in a species’s life cycle in which these threats are strongest.

“We’re hoping this paper will raise enough awareness among people who love birds and nature,” Rosenberg said. “We need to see public outcry lead to a second wave of conservation.”

Why Birds Survived, and Dinosaurs Went Extinct, After an Asteroid Hit Earth

Paleontologists think that beaks may have given birds an advantage over other creatures

Great Spotted Woodpecker
A great spotted woodpecker eats a hazelnut. Bird beaks may have allowed the animals to eat seeds and nuts after an asteroid hit the earth, wiping out many forms of life. (Photo by: Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Birds are the only dinosaurs left. That might seem strange. A pigeon or a penguin doesn’t look much like a Tyrannosaurus. But the connection is still there, all the way down to the bone. About 150 million years ago, in the Jurassic, the first birds evolved from small, feathery, raptor-like dinosaurs, becoming another branch on the dinosaur family tree. For more than 80 million years, birds of all sorts flourished, from loon-like swimmers with teeth to beaked birds that carried streamer-like feathers as they flew.

With hindsight, birds can be categorized as avian dinosaurs and all the other sorts—from Stegosaurus to Brontosaurus—are non-avian dinosaurs. The entire reason paleontologists make that split is because of a catastrophe that struck 66 million years ago. An asteroid more than 6 miles across struck what’s now the Yucatan Peninsula, triggering the fifth mass extinction in the world’s history. Some of the debris thrown into the atmosphere returned to Earth, the friction turning the air into an oven and sparking forest fires as it landed all over the world. Then the intensity of the heat pulse gave way to a prolonged impact winter, the sky blotted out by soot and ash as temperatures fell. All told, more than 75 percent of species known from the end of the Cretaceous period, 66 million years ago, didn’t make it to the following Paleogene period. The geologic break between the two is called the K-Pg boundary, and beaked birds were the only dinosaurs to survive the disaster.

“There has been a lot of discussion about what enabled modern-type birds to survive the K-Pg extinction while other birds groups, non-avian dinosaurs, and even pterosaurs perished,” says Royal BC Museum paleontologist Derek Larson. The end of the Cretaceous boasted an entire array of birds and bird-like reptiles. But of these groups, it was only the beaked birds that survived. The happenstances of evolution had given birds a lucky break, the key events set in motion long before the asteroid struck.

All living birds have toothless beaks, but this wasn’t always so. The very first bird, the 150 million-year-old Archaeopteryx, initially confounded 19th century naturalists because it had teeth. For tens of millions of years after Archaeopteryx, toothed birds continued to thrive and evolve alongside their dinosaurian relatives. And some of these toothed birds eventually lost their teeth, plucking up their meals with toothless beaks instead.

The question is what evolutionary pressures pushed birds to lose teeth when teeth seem so useful. Given that most birds fly, adaptation to the air seemed like a possibility. “Older hypotheses focused on the idea of weight reduction for flight,” says University of Texas at Austin paleontologist Grace Musser, but the discovery that some toothed birds were strong fliers has led researchers back to the drawing board.

Rather than flight, food might have given birds an evolutionary nudge towards toothless beaks as ancient avians thrived among other dinosaurs. Paleontologists have noticed that some dinosaur groups, including birds, evolved beaks and lost teeth as they became more herbivorous. While the earliest birds had teeth to nab insects and other small morsels, some bird lineages started to specialize on fruit, seeds, and other plant foods. Instead of teeth to catch, the birds evolved beaks to pluck and pick.

Among the birds that began to lose teeth in favor of beaks, the way beaks form during development may have helped the evolutionary shift. “Changes to the skull and face as the beak became more complex may have moved developing tissues around, changing how they interact in the embryo, and resulted in the loss of tooth formation,” says King’s College London anatomist Abigail Tucker.

“All the things that make birds, birds, were already in place well before the mass extinction,” says University College London anatomist Ryan Felice.

When the extinction struck, the traits birds had been evolving for millions of years made the difference between life and death. While some birds survived the impact and its aftermath, not all of them did. “When we think about hypotheses of traits that let birds survive, we need to take into account that it was only a small sliver of diversity that made it to the other side,” Felice says. Entire groups of birds, such as toothed birds called enantiornithes, went extinct. It’s unlikely that one single trait determined the fate of all these species. Still, surviving extinction often comes down to luck, and beaks may have been some birds’ ace.

By the end of the Cretaceous, beaked birds were already eating a much more varied diet than their toothed relatives. These birds weren’t specialized on insects or other animal food, and so they were able to pluck up hard food items like seeds and nuts. And in the aftermath of the extinction, when animal life was severely cut back, those hard, persistent little morsels got beaked birds through the hard times. Beaked birds were able to feed on the seeds of the destroyed forests and wait out the decades until vegetation began to return.

Both fossils and the timeline of bird evolution discerned from their genetic relationships indicates that early members of modern bird groups—such as birds related to ducks, parrots, and chickens—were around by time the asteroid struck. These groups still suffered losses, but enough survived to set up a new pulse of bird evolution in the millions of years following the catastrophe. Many bird lineages became smaller in size while maintaining their brain size. Through evolutionary shrinking, birds wound up with larger brains compared to their body size, setting the stage for avian intelligence beyond what the non-avian dinosaurs could have evolved.

But big evolutionary changes often come with constraints. “The loss of teeth does limit the number of dietary niches birds could explore,” Felice says. “Herbivorous mammals and non-avian dinosaurs evolved ever-growing teeth so that could continue eating as the plants wore their teeth down, but this just isn’t possible with a beak,” Felice says. And that means that bird skulls haven’t needed to vary as much to support different jaws and ways of feeding, meaning that birds look like evolutionary slowpokes compared to non-avian dinosaurs—as Felice and colleagues found in a new study of bird skull evolution.

To understand more about how birds managed to survive and make a living in a world recovering from one of the worst mass extinctions of all time, the task at hand is to find more fossils from the time directly following the mass extinction, from a time called the Paleocene. Paleontologists have some great examples of fossil birds from about 10 million years after the disaster, from a time called the Eocene, but birds fossils from the slice in between the Cretaceous and Eocene are fragmentary and hard to find. These are the bones that may reveal new secrets.

Birds are dropping dead in New Mexico, potentially in the ‘hundreds of thousands’

Scientists are investigating why so many birds are dying and are asking the public for help.
Image: Dead birds in New Mexico

Birds in New Mexico are dropping dead. Scientists don’t know why.NM State University

By Ben Kesslen

Wildlife experts in New Mexico say birds in the region are dropping dead in alarming numbers, potentially in the “hundreds of thousands.”

“It appears to be an unprecedented and a very large number,” Martha Desmond, a professor at New Mexico State University’s department of fish, wildlife, and conservation ecology, told NBC’s Albuquerque affiliate KOB.

New Mexico residents have reported coming upon dead birds on hiking trails, missile ranges, and other locations.

Image: Dead birds in New Mexico
Birds in New Mexico are mysteriously dying in large numbers.Allison Salas

In a video posted by Las Cruces Sun News, journalist Austin Fisher shows a cluster of dead birds he discovered while on a hike on September 13 in the state’s northern Rio Arriba County.

“I have no idea,” Fisher says in the video, as he pans the camera to reveals what appears to be dozens of birds lying dead on the ground.

Desmond said it is difficult to say how many birds are dying, but that there have been reports across the state. “I can say it would easily be in the hundreds of thousands of birds.”

Multiple agencies are investigating the occurrences, including the Bureau of Land Management and the White Sands Missile Range, a military testing area.

“On the missile range we might in a week find, get a report of, less than half a dozen birds,” Trish Butler, a biologist at the range, told KOB. “This last week we’ve had a couple hundred, so that really got our attention.”

It’s unclear to scientists why the die-off is occurring, and Desmond said it’s possible it was caused by a cold front that hit New Mexico last week or by recent droughts.

Desmond also told KOB the deaths could be related to the wildfires in the West. “There may have been some damage to these birds in their lungs. It may have pushed them out early when they weren’t ready to migrate.”

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said on Twitter that “not much is known about the impacts of smoke and wildfires on birds.”

Scientists are asking the public to report sightings of dead birds to an online database, and that people safely collect the dead birds so that researchers can study them closer.

Quoting ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ judge strikes down Trump administration rollback of historic law protecting birds

‘It is not only a sin to kill a mockingbird, it is also a crime,’ Judge Valerie Caproni wrote in a forceful decision

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act protects species including American bald eagles, such as these at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Cambridge, Md. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act protects species including American bald eagles, such as these at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Cambridge, Md. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

A federal judge in New York has invalidated rule changes by the Trump administration that allowed individuals and corporations to kill scores of birds as long as they could prove they did not intentionally set out to do so.

In a blistering ruling that cited Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” U.S. District Judge Valerie E. Caproni ripped the administration’s interpretation of “takings” and “killings” of birds under the century-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act as applying only if the animals are specifically targeted.

Tuesday’s ruling was the latest legal setback for the Trump administration as it has systematically tried to weaken or nullify scores of federal environmental protections. In her decision, Caproni said the administration had gone too far.

“There is nothing in the text of the MBTA that suggests that in order to fall within its prohibition, activity must be directed specifically at birds,” wrote Caproni, who was nominated to the Southern District of New York by President Obama in 2012. “Nor does the statute prohibit only intentionally killing migratory birds. And it certainly does not say that only ‘some’ kills are prohibited.”

The changes made by the Trump administration largely benefited oil companies, which have paid most of the fines for violating the act, according to an analysis by the National Audubon Society.

In the administration’s view, even BP, the company responsible for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that led to the deaths of an estimated 1 million birds, would not be liable for punishment under the law. A landowner who destroys endangered owl nests without checking before building a barn or an oil company that fails to cover a tar pit that birds could dive into and be killed could not be held responsible as they have for decades.

Caproni determined that allowing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service police to enforce the act only if officials could prove intent was a violation of the federal Administrative Procedure Act and vacated the changes. In striking down the rule change, she admonished the Interior Department with a passage from “To Kill a Mockingbird.”


“It is not only a sin to kill a mockingbird, it is also a crime,” Caproni wrote. “That has been the letter of the law for the past century. But if the Department of the Interior has its way, many mockingbirds and other migratory birds that delight people and support ecosystems throughout the country will be killed without legal consequence.”

Eight state attorneys general challenged the administration when it weakened the act two years ago. Led by then-New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood, the coalition included the top attorneys in Maryland, New Jersey, Illinois, Massachusetts, Oregon, California and New Mexico.

The court joined their lawsuit with another challenge filed by the National Audubon Society and numerous other conservation groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity.

“This is a huge victory for birds and it comes at a critical time — science tells us that we’ve lost 3 billion birds in less than a human lifetime and that two-thirds of North American birds are at risk of extinction due to climate change,” Sarah Greenberger, interim chief conservation officer for the National Audubon Society, said in a statement.

Interior Department spokesman Conner Swanson defended the rule change. “Today’s opinion undermines a common sense interpretation of the law and runs contrary to recent efforts, shared across the political spectrum, to decriminalize unintentional conduct,” he wrote in an email.

The Trump administration has suffered numerous defeats in its effort to scuttle long-standing environmental protections, calling them onerous requirements that were harming industry and development.

In February, a federal judge in Idaho voided nearly 1 million acres of oil and gas leases on federal lands in the West, echoing an earlier decision in saying the Trump administration was “arbitrary and capricious” in the way that it limited public input on those leases.

In the weeks leading up to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act rule change in 2018, the administration lost three court cases in three consecutive days. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in 2018 that the Environmental Protection Agency’s move to delay new chemical and safety requirements was “arbitrary and capricious.”

A day before, a judge on the U.S. District Court in South Carolina reinstated a rule in 26 states limiting the dredging and filling of streams and waterways on the grounds that the EPA had not solicited sufficient public input. Before that, a judge on the U.S. District Court of Montana ordered the State Department to conduct a more extensive environmental impact statement of the Keystone XL’s proposed route through Nebraska.

The 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act was enacted after several species of common birds became extinct. The administration’s action reversed decades of efforts by Republican and Democratic administrations to protect the animals as they navigate the globe. The law covers such disparate birds as eagles, red knots, Canada geese and vultures.

Oil companies were the greatest beneficiaries of the new interpretation, according to an analysis by the Audubon Society. They were responsible for 90 percent of incidental takes prosecuted under the act, resulting in fines of $6,500 per violation. Two disastrous oil spills, the BP Deepwater Horizon spill off Louisiana in 2010 and the Exxon Valdez oil tanker wreck off Alaska in 1989, accounted for 97 percent of the fines, according to the Audubon Society.

In striking down the Interior Department’s rule change, Caproni deferred to how Congress framed the law. “It shall be unlawful to hunt, take, capture, kill, attempt to take, capture or kill … by any means whatever … at any time or in any manner, any migratory bird, included in the terms of the convention between the United States and Great Britain for the protection of migratory birds,” it said.

Caproni granted a motion by the state attorneys and conservationists to vacate the Interior Department’s decision. Attorneys for the Interior Department sought to delay the court’s remedy for undermining the will of Congress when it enacted the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and amended it throughout the years. The judge dismissed that attempt.

“Interior presents no indication that vacating the Opinion will disrupt enforcement or other agency efforts,” she wrote.

“The court’s decision is a ringing victory for conservationists who have fought to sustain the historical interpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to protect migratory birds from industrial harms,” Jamie Rappaport Clark, the president and chief executive of Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement.

Clark called the federal action a wrongheaded move that “would have left the fate of more than 1,000 species of birds in the hands of industry.”

1918 Flu Pandemic Came From A Bird


A mysterious, very contagious, and lethal virus that had crossed over to humans from an animal spread quickly across Europe, and then the United States, leaving mass casualties in its wake. American officials, along with some members of the press, initially downplayed the significance of the 1918 influenza pandemic, promising it would soon go away. The public was told by some officials they should go about business as usual.

As the lethality of the virus became clear, with death resulting from pneumonia-like conditions as a result of the disease, officials delayed closing institutions, then pushed to have them reopened.

Protective equipment was in short supply, doctors and nurses became ill and died, and the country’s surgeon general gave the American people a lesson on how to make cloth face masks to help stop the contagion.

Sound familiar? This pandemic, commonly referred to as the Spanish influenza, although that origin was eventually debunked, closely mirrors the world’s current fight against COVID-19.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website described the 1918 pandemic as being caused “by an H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin.” It came from a bird.

Europe was consumed by what was then known as The Great War, now called World War I. The United States joined the fight in April 1917, taking sides with France, England, and Belgium. Russia dropped out of the Allied Forces effort after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Their chief opponents were the nations now known as Germany, Austria, and Turkey.

The Independent has examined the reporting in every issue of The New York Times, and local newspapers, like The East Hampton Star from that year.

In 1918, The Times was an advocate for the war effort and the President Woodrow Wilson administration. The war dominated its front page daily with every one topped by a banner headline proclaiming the day’s events on the battlefield. The influenza never made it to the front page once, despite the fact that the disease would go on to kill roughly 675,000 Americans, as reported by the CDC. According to the organization, “about 500 million people, or one-third of the world’s population, became infected with this virus. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide.”

Of the 116,516 American troops who died in the war, over 63,000 of them were killed by the flu.

Molly Billings, an associate professor at the University of Washington’s Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Sleep Medicine, wrote about the pandemic in 1997, the year she obtained her BA from Stanford University.

“The influenza virus had a profound virulence, with a mortality rate at 2.5 percent, compared to the previous influenza epidemics, which were less than 0.1 percent,” she said. “Most of humanity felt the effects of this strain of the influenza virus. It spread following the path of its human carriers, along trade routes and shipping lines. Outbreaks swept through North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Brazil, and the South Pacific. In India, the mortality rate was extremely high, at around 50 deaths from influenza per 1000 people.”

It’s not known where the disease made the jump from bird to human, but it likely was not from Spain. While the rest of Europe was engaged in an all-out war, Spain was on the sideline. Information from the war-consumed nations was being censored, but not from Spain. The first mention of Spanish influenza appeared in The New York Times on June 21, 1918. The story is sourced from an unnamed Dutch traveler, just returning from Germany.

“Spain Affected by German Sickness and Other Countries Will Be, Says Hollander,” the headline on the story reads. “‘The mysterious sickness, now prevalent in Spain, comes from Germany and will doubtless soon reach other countries,’ said a Dutch tailor who recently returned from Germany.”

On June 25 and June 27, The Times reported that German troops were infected by disease.

“Spanish Influenza is Raging in the German Army,” a June 27 headline read. “LONDON, June 26: Influenza is now epidemic all along the German front, according to advices received from the Dutch frontier, and the prevalence of this ailment is said to be hampering the preparations for offensive operations.”

On June 28, dateline Washington, D.C., The Times reported that the “epidemic is not regarded here as having serious proportions. It is clear that the soldier who has it is incapacitated for duty, and thousands may be down with the disease at once, so that military movements may be delayed.”

“The American troops have at no time shown any form of the disease,” the story reported. “Precautions have already been ordered, however, to meet any emergency.”

On July 3, a Spanish ship came to an American port, and was fumigated, a story reports. On July 11, kaiser Wilhelm II, the leader of Germany at the time, was reported to have fallen ill with the disease, and had to leave the western front of the war.

All along, Americans were promised that the disease could never hit home.

This is the first installment of a three-part series on the influenza pandemic of 1918.