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A lone feather fallen at the Rio Grande Nature Center on Aug. 22, 2018. 

A lone feather fallen at the Rio Grande Nature Center on Aug. 22, 2018. 

New Mexico's birds and trees are dying

Bird populations in New Mexico are failing to take off — in fact, they’re nosediving.

A study conducted by scientists at the Los Alamos National Labs (LANL) found that piñon pine trees are dying in growing numbers, which is having adverse effects on wildlife in the area — especially birds. Researchers believe climate change is one of the reasons.

The study, conducted by Jeanne Fair and Charles Hathcock, concluded that “piñon mortality may be a significant threat to bird communities in the southwestern U.S.” It also stated that piñon-juniper woodlands, in which piñon trees thrive, may disappear completely by the year 2100, according to a LANL press release.

Piñon pines are the state tree of New Mexico and are found throughout the Southwest.

“It’s really quite disturbing,” said Jonathan Hayes, vice president and executive director of Audubon New Mexico, a nature sanctuary in Santa Fe. “The Pajarito Plateau is named that for its bird abundance, so it’s really ironic that we’re seeing huge bird decline in that area.”

Drought and hotter temperatures both play a factor in the death of the piñon pines. Hotter temperatures have also lead to the proliferation of bark beetles, who Hayes said kills trees by cutting off their circulation.

One species of birds afflicted by the decline is the pinyon jay. The bird nests in piñon-juniper woodlands, and has seen a significant loss of habitat as the trees continue to die. No pinyon jays were found at any of the study sites in the LANL study.

According to Kristine Johnson, an associate professor at the University of New Mexico who studies pinyon jays, the bird and the trees have a mutualistic relationship — the birds spread the tree’s seeds and the trees provide birds with food. Her team studies pinyon jays in a separate part of the state from where the LANL study was conducted.

Johnson added that, while no one knows exactly why pinyon jays are declining, there’s a hypothesis that the lack of piñon seeds for the birds to feed on may be part of the problem.

However, the decline in piñon-juniper bird species is not excluded to the pinyon jay. New Mexico Avian Conservation Partners ranks birds species in New Mexico by their vulnerability, and seven piñon-juniper bird species appear on the list. They include the pinyon jay, juniper titmouse, woodhouse’s scrub-jay, black-throated gray warbler, gray vireo and the mountain chickadee.

Johnson also said that treatment efforts, which often include thinning of woodlands, on the part of agencies like the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service may have resulted in destruction of more habitat for birds. She cited an area her team studied that was treated by BLM.

“They basically just made that area so it’s no longer good nesting habitat,” she said. “We feel that there needs to be more monitoring on these treatments.”

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The LANL study stated that “bird abundance and species richness declined faster in thinned sites than unthinned sites,” although diversity of species was unaffected by thinning.

The Daily Lobo attempted to reach out to BLM for comment, but did not receive an answer before publication.

Hayes said decline in bird populations have not only occurred in piñon-juniper woodlands, but also in river areas and especially the eastern grasslands part of the state. He cited the example of the lesser prairie chicken, which currently occupies less than 10 percent of its historic range, according to the Audubon Society.

Despite decreasing bird populations, Hayes said that the Trump administration intends to remove more birds off the endangered species list. He said the administration has not removed any species as of yet.

“This is a call to action for all of us,” Hayes said.

He also said that people can help piñon pines and the birds that inhabit them by living a carbon-neutral lifestyle, and even participate in habitat restoration projects put on by the Audubon Society.

Kyle Land is the Editor-in-Chief for the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted by email at or on Twitter @kyleoftheland.

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