Mass Die-Off of Birds in the State of New Mexico

Founder and Director, Species in Peril project at UNM
Founder and Director, Center for Environmental Arts & Humanities

After the mass die-off of birds last Fall in my home state of New Mexico, this Spring, I have been thinking a lot about birds—shore- and seabirds primarily but also songbirds.

Fifteen years ago, I opened the Preface to the book, Arctic Wings: Birds of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, with these words: “The Snow Buntings have just arrived. They seem cheerful as they sing their hearts out. Jane Thompson, Robert’s wife, is very happy to see them, and so is the rest of the village. She tells me about all the different places they are going to be nesting.” That was mid-April in Kaktovik, an Iñupiat village at the northern edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. The ground was completely covered in snow that would not melt for another four to six weeks. The arrival of Snow Bunting is a significant promise that Spring is just around the corner.

Three days ago, I spoke with Robert. The first thing he told me over the phone is this: “the Snow Buntings arrived yesterday.”

Nineteen years ago, Robert and I were camped on a barrier island in the Arctic Refuge, when I made a photograph of surf scoters (a seabird species) over the Beaufort Lagoon with the imperiled Coastal Plain in the background (see photo). That photograph will open the Foreword I just wrote for an eye-opening book, Audubon at Sea, which will be published later this year by the University of Chicago Press. The book focuses on an overlooked aspect of the nineteenth-century artist, writer, and ornithologist John James Audubon—his writing on and drawings of sea- and shorebirds. The book is co-edited by noted Audubon scholar Christoph Irmscher and noted writer on sea and creatures of the sea Richard J. King. Black ornithologist J. Drew Lanham recently wrote a significant reevaluation of John James Audubon by highlighting his racism and his participation in slavery. Audubon at Sea also mentions Drew Lanham’s important writing.

On February 25, 2021, I participated, with Christoph Irmscher and Drew Lanham and, shorebird scientist Stephen Brown, crane scientist George Archibald, and other friends for a memorable event: “Peter Matthiessen’s Love of Birds.” My dear friend, Alex Matthiessen, Peter’s son, was the host, and Daniela Kronemeyer, Executive Director of the recently established Peter Matthiessen Center was the convener. Some of you likely are a fan of the writings of Peter Matthiessen, the late-great sage of American letters, the only American writer to have won the National Book Award in both nonfiction (for Snow Leopard) and in fiction (for Shadow Country). Peter wrote tirelessly in defense of wildlife and Indigenous peoples (In the Spirit of Crazy Horse). I had the honor to do three trips with him to Arctic Alaska. Peter was my friend and mentor. I miss him dearly. At the webinar gathering, the panelists mentioned at least three of Peter’s books on wildlife: Wildlife in America, Shorebirds of North America, and Birds of Heaven.

Lately, I have been spending much of my time, reading and learning about shorebirds—from Stephen Brown and other committed shorebird scientists and conservationists across the Americas. I learned that large herds of bison (before their massacre in the nineteenth century) made it possible by chomping on the tall grass and stomping on the prairie so that tiny Buff-breasted sandpipers would gather on the prairie in large numbers to rest and feed on their journey from the Arctic to Argentina—this is what I’d call “multispecies world-making”—the massive bison helping the tiny buffies to survive. I’m just starting to write on shorebirds that Peter Matthiessen had called the “wind birds” in Shorebirds of North America.

On Monday, April 5, the recently established Center for Environmental Arts and Humanities at the University of New Mexico (UNM) and the UNM Art Museum hosted a public talk by Chicano storyteller and cartoonist Zeke Peña.

Following the talk, Zeke joined Arif Khan (Director of the UNM Art Museum), Eleonora Edreva (MFA student in Art & Ecology at UNM), and I, for a moderated roundtable conversation with questions submitted by the attendees.

It was a very inspiring evening. If you missed watching it live, you can view it now from the Center’s YouTube channel (please see link below).

YouTube link to Zeke Peña talk: