Jenna McCullough studies the colorful passerines of the South Pacific islands at the University of New Mexico's Museum of Southwestern Biology. Photograph by Stefan Wachs. 

A THIRD-GENERATION BIRDER and third-year doctoral student, Jenna McCullough spends her days sorting through cabinets of preserved birds at the University of New Mexico’s Museum of Southwestern Biology, where she studies the colorful passerines of the South Pacific islands. But it was New Mexico’s birds that flushed her out into the public eye. In September, she wrote about the mass die-off of migratory birds that sparked international media coverage.  

MY GRANDMOTHER WAS A HUGE BIRDER all her life. She traveled all over the world birding. Growing up, I hated birds. When your mother is a bird-watcher and she stops to look at a sewage pond for 45 minutes, it’s not fun.  

I studied animals my first semester of college and volunteered for a scientist banding saw-whet owls. These owls are really small and cute. After that, I realized I really liked working with birds.  

Last year, I was working as an associate editor of North American Birds magazine, when I started hearing about the die-offs. We collected a few dead birds in the Sandía Mountains for the museum and thought that was it.  

Then I saw a Twitter post about dead birds in Velarde. My partner and I went up there to collect them. We got there at midnight and had to walk over a mile with the light from our headlamps. We found one on the early part of the trail, then we turned a corner and found piles of birds between a cliff and the Río Grande. I’m someone who deals with dead birds a lot. I had never seen something like this. It was really upsetting. I was trying to hold back tears because I love birds, especially violet-green swallows.  

Birds die every year during migration. Weather causes bird deaths. We have seen that climate change causes more frequent, more serious forest fires. This die-off event is important. It’s serious. But there’s no data pointing to millions of birds dying or linking forest fires hundreds of miles away to birds dying here. There were fewer than 2,000 birds collected in the state.  

Once the story went viral, I thought, This is an event that could have a significant impact on our lives. It just felt so big. A lot of people started looking outside their window and thinking about birds. For me, birding is a way of communing with nature and my environment. Hopefully this has inspired people to support conservation and support wildlands and preservation. 

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