Each summer and fall, as orange-tinged smoke fills skies around Los Angeles, questions of concern flood Olivia Sanderfoot’s inbox: Why are birds so quiet? Do they need birdbaths? How can I help?
An ecologist at UCLA’s La Kretz Center for California Conservation Science, Sanderfoot specializes in studying how wildfire smoke and air pollution affect birds. But even she doesn’t have great answers: Scientists know surprisingly little about how birds behave in extreme haze.
In 2023, Sanderfoot started Project Phoenix, a collaboration between UCLA and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, to empower people to help researchers dig into these questions. During peak fire season from August through October, more than 300 volunteers conducted 10-minute weekly surveys in California, logging birds they saw or heard in their neighborhoods. “Although 10 minutes might not seem like a lot, if we pool everybody’s observations together, we’ll actually be able to start answering questions about how smoke is shaping where birds occur on the landscape,” she says.
Smoke is a growing threat to human and avian health as climate change fuels more extreme blazes. This spring, for example, smoke from wildfires in Canada caused poor air quality across the Midwest and East Coast, creating breathing difficulties for vulnerable people and forcing many indoors. “Birds have lungs just like humans,” says Andrew Stillman, a Cornell Lab of Ornithology conservation ecologist. But unlike people, birds can’t take shelter inside.
Scientists especially want to know how haze affects species during migration, when birds are at their physiological limits. “Any extra disturbance on top of that can have really severe and long-term impacts,” Stillman says. But because plumes are expansive and ever changing, large surveys are difficult to pull off. One of the few studies on the subject occurred by chance: In 2020, smoke in the Pacific Northwest appeared to derail the flight paths of four Tule Geese that happened to be wearing GPS trackers. But data from a single species reveal little about how larger avian populations cope, says Cory Overton, a U.S. Geological Survey wildlife biologist who co-authored the study.
That’s where Project Phoenix comes in. With its simple protocol, the volunteer data, submitted to eBird, could provide insight into how species distributions change through the fire season. By learning about whether birds move away from smoky areas, seek out birdbaths, shelter within foliage, or exhibit other unusual behaviors, Sanderfoot hopes to provide better advice for helping birds during hazardous smoke events.
With the first season wrapped, Sanderfoot is analyzing data and planning a potential expansion to Washington and Oregon in 2024. No birding experience is necessary; in fact, she especially wants to recruit volunteers from communities that have been traditionally excluded from such efforts. That’s why Project Phoenix offers plenty of guidance and will even answer identification questions. The only prerequisite to participate? Curiosity.
This story also ran in the Winter 2023 issue as “Smoke Effects.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.