Saturday, October 24, 2020
Oct. 24, 2020

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Oregon wildfires can stress, damage health of wild animals that survive, upend bird migrations

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Wildfire smoke obviously is not good for your health. It can cause shortness of breath and a racing heartbeat, with long-term exposure potentially even leading to a heart attack or stroke.

Such health problems apply to wildlife as well as humans.

Any animal with lungs can be in serious trouble from exposure to wildfire smoke, and of course squirrels and birds can’t retreat into a house, close all the windows and turn on an air purifier.

“This kind of pollution is going to be damaging to all living things,” pointed out Portland Audubon director of conservation Bob Sallinger, referring to the thick smoke that has blanketed Portland and much of Oregon over the past week.

Birds in particular are in danger because their “respiratory systems are so sensitive,” Sallinger said.

Birds know what to do when faced with fire and smoke: they fly away. But wildfires right now stretch from Southern California to Canada. Birds might not be able to make it to safer climes, especially with food sources harder to find along the way.

Portland Audubon hasn’t seen an influx of birds being brought into its Wildlife Care Center in recent days. But that isn’t an indication that a large percentage of the area’s birds managed to escape to distant clear air. Sallinger figures it’s because the good Samaritans who come upon distressed animals while hiking or biking have been hunkered down in their homes waiting for the smoke to dissipate.

And, sure enough, there is evidence that our avian friends are in distress. One example comes from Portland lawyer Sarah Laidlaw, who, with her husband Rob, recently launched a sailboat for a round-the-world tour — and last week found herself in a thick, endless wave of smoke three miles out to sea.

The couple’s boat was coming around Cape Blanco off the southern Oregon coast at about 1:30 in the morning when a storm petrel, a small seabird, crashed into the back of Laidlaw’s head and fell into the cockpit.

“It was stunned or tired or confused,” she told The Oregonian/OregonLive. “It just sat with us for about 45 minutes before flying away.”

This is highly unusual behavior for a storm petrel: the birds live in the open ocean and only come ashore to nest.

It also wasn’t an isolated incident. Over the next couple of days, three more storm petrels landed on the boat amid the smoky haze, possibly disoriented or stressed from smoke inhalation. One of them stayed for nine hours, “huddled on the deck,” Laidlaw said. “It let us pick it up. It just sat there in my hand.”

Laidlaw said she talked to a California wildlife-rescue expert who told her that uninjured petrels like the ones that landed on her boat should be released back into the water — and that, if they’re found at the shore, they should be released at night “so that they have a better chance of avoiding being dinner for a gull.”

Some birds and other wildlife benefit from fire, which can open up new food sources, but the issue is larger than the pros and cons of any particular wildfire. Bob Sallinger says climate change, which scientists believe is making fire season worse, is outpacing “the ability of species to adapt.”

He said the massive fires along the West Coast this year hit at the worst possible time for birds. This is the peak of migration, when they’re especially vulnerable. Many migrating birds use constellations to navigate — and this can be disrupted by wildfire smoke as well as everyday urban light pollution. If birds are forced to reroute or have unusual difficulty finding food because of large-scale fires, their chances of survival plummet.

“Birds already live their lives on the edge,” Sallinger said. “This adds insult to injury.”

With rain falling Friday morning in the Portland area, the smoke is beginning to clear out and squirrels and birds are showing up once again outside our windows. This is good news, but it doesn’t mean it’s back to normal.

The long-term impact of fires on wildlife simply isn’t well understood.

“We don’t have a way of gauging the full implications,” Sallinger said. “There aren’t studies on squirrels living shorter because of lung damage.”

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