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Birds Studied for Reaction to Wildfire Smoke

Gary Robertson/Flickr Creative Commons


The smoke from area wildfires can pose a health threat to humans, but you may be surprised to learn that researchers are also trying to find out the negative impacts the smoke may have on birds.

Birds have a unique way of breathing, much different than mammals.

Olivia Sanderfoot is a National Science Foundation graduate research fellow at the University of Washington in Seattle. She is working on how air pollution affects birds.

She explains their breathing systems allow them to take in more oxygen per unit of air than humans do, something that helps, in part, them to breathe at high altitudes.

“They actually breathe unidirectional, they breathe in a continuous loop. And they utilize a system of air sacs to do this. You can kind of think of them as acting like bellows,” she said.

Sanderfoot says there are very few scientific papers published examining how birds react to air pollution, including smoke. Much of the current knowledge comes from field studies, and case studies in veterinary medicine and poultry research. 

“We know smoke causes thermal and chemical damage to avian lung tissue, and increases avian risk to infection. We also know smoke may compromise a bird's ability to escape during wildfire. They could become trapped due to the presence of thick smoke,” she said.

She says her research is looking more specifically at how various levels of pollution like smoke will impact the birds. She is seeking grant funding for one study to look at how birds move when reacting to a wildfire. She says there have been no studies on how wildfire smoke affects wild birds.

Sanderfoot says she is also actively looking for any anecdotal information that birders may have on unusual sightings of birds or their activities near wildfires.

You can contact her at