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Study: How smoke affects birds in Washington ... and our ability to see them

We know that people suffer when smoke from wildfires fills the air. It’s a nuisance and a health hazard. But how does it affect wildlife?

Researchers at the University of Washington are tackling that question.

Olivia Sanderfoot, a doctoral candidate in quantitative ecology at UW, wanted to find some answers. She says the lab at School of Environmental and Forest Sciences where she’s based get lots of questions from the community – especially from birders. 

“Asking uswhat is happening to birds during these extended smoke events. And there is not a lot of information in the literature to go off of when making predictions,” Sanderfoot says.

Her ongoing work includes recordings deployed in 2020 around the state at various locations near air-quality monitoring stations that provide public data, which may provide insights on how smoke affects songbirds such as the chickadees, robins and warblers in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.

That study was interrupted by the pandemic, but Sanderfoot has just co-authored a paper on how smoke impacts our ability to see the birds, which lays important groundwork for learning more and is actually quite complicated. 

In the study, Sanderfoot combines data on Washington’s air quality (the amount of particulate in the air) with bird sightings recorded online by citizen scientists to eBird, an online tool managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 

She looked at 71 species in Washington over four years, starting in 2015. 

She found 16 of the bird species were harder to observe with wildfire smoke – including many larger ones like bald eagles and turkey vultures that tend to be seen flying high above the ground. 

But 10 species were easier to observe when smoke concentrations were higher – many of them songbirds.

“In the birding community, there is this assumption that we see fewer birds; oftentimes people say, 'Where did the birds go?' And this shows that it’s much more complicated than that. Some species we do see more often during the smoke pollution episodes, while some species we definitely see less,” she says.

The ones we see more might be seeking out cleaner air at ground level, closer to us. Or bird-watchers might be looking for them more, out of concern during a smoke event. 

Co-author Beth Gardner, a professor of quantitative ecology at UW’s School of Environmental and Forest Sciences and Sanderfoot’s advisor, says understanding the complexities is important because so much science depends on accurate counts of wildlife.

“If we want to get the story of, are population’s increasing, decreasing? Is survival affected? – if we want to get those right, we have to understand how we observe and detect the species.” 

Gardner says this is just the beginning of a lot more research that’s needed as big wildfires become more common around the globe. The study was published last monthin the journal Ornithological Applications. 

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to