Winged Warnings: Our series day-by-day

August 22, 2014

Our reporters traveled to the islets of Iceland, the prairies of Canada, the shores of Lake Michigan and the backyards of Alaska, among other places, to reveal surprising new threats to the world's birds. “Canary in the coalmine” isn’t just a proverb: Birds are showing us what ails their environment – and sometimes, what ails us.Their breeding, parenting, behavior, brains, hormones – even their songs – have been altered by pollutants, climate change and other threats. More than 1,300 species of birds are perched perilously on a global list of threatened species, and each one is sending us warnings that scientists are trying to decipher. Unfolding over six weeks, Winged Warnings is published in conjunction with National Geographic.

Marla Cone, Editor in Chief, Environmental Health News

Built for survival

Jeopardized from pole to pole, birds are sending us messages about our own health and the health of the planet. They have long been indicator species for what ails the world.
By Alanna Mitchell 
Plus: 7 continents: Snapshots of troubled species and an interactive global map 

Osprey whisperers

For decades, listening to these birds of prey, which are the ultimate fish-eating locavores, has helped scientists identify environmental and human health threats like dioxins, DDT and flame retardants. What are these birds telling us now?
By Christopher Solomon 

Empty nests of the North

Colonies of puffins, terns, kittiwakes and other seabirds are shrinking in the North Atlantic. Scientists are finding horrific scenes of dead chicks. The causes are poorly understood, but are inexorably tied to ocean health, especially climate change.
By Cheryl Katz 

Heavy metal songs

Mercury alters the very thing that backyard birds are known for: their songs. Scientists stumbled across this discovery while listening to wrens and sparrows in a rural Virginia woods polluted by a chemical plant.
By Helen Fields and Alanna Mitchell 


The bittersweet tale of a lead-poisoned bald eagle in Wyoming is a story about resilience – of birds and their healers.
By Kenneth R. Weiss 

Toxic gulls

Flame retardants are the 21st century’s PCBs, and Great Lakes birds still are the victims. These chemicals are altering the hormones of gulls in an island off Montreal. In kestrels, they are causing aggressive behavior.
By Brian Bienkowski 

Loss of night

Constantly being exposed to artificial light stresses urban birds, altering their hormones and mating. Scientists worry that this loss of darkness is changing birds' fundamental physiology.
By Jane Kay 

Loon, interrupted

A mysterious drop in loons’ chick survival is jeopardizing their comeback. Scientists are investigating this from Massachusetts to Montana. Could acid rain – that scourge of the ‘70s and ‘80s – be the cause?
By Lindsey Konkel 

Metal madness

Low levels of lead are dumbing down birds' instincts, altering their behavior and messing up their digestion. They may even be more prone to flying into power lines.
By Lindsey Konkel 

Twisted beaks

What is causing the deformed, macaroni-shaped beaks of Alaska's tiny chickadees, leaving so many of them to starve? Scientists have new clues.
By Jane Kay 

Mass murder by botulism

Botulism, one of the deadliest toxins on Earth, is concentrating in exotic species, accelerating the threat to waterfowl and worsening die-offs in the Great Lakes.
By Brian Bienkowski 

Scrambling birds' brains

Eagles, coots and mallards are suffering a mysterious brain disease, largely in the Southeastern U.S., linked to a toxin in their food. Researchers are unraveling clues that could help find the causes of human neurological diseases, too.
By Lindsey Konkel 

A new generation of scientists

A look at the hazards of new neonicotinoid pesticides through the eyes of Canadian scientist Christy Morrissey. The endless cycle of one chemical replacing another drives the need for a new generation of vigilant scientists to replace Rachel Carson.
By Alanna Mitchell

Perilous journey

We track the sooty shearwater’s perilous 40,000-mile migration from south of New Zealand to the North Pacific and back. This seabird, which inspired Hitchcock's The Birds when it was poisoned with a brain-scrambling toxin, encounters a multitude of threats.
By Cheryl Katz

Opinion: The Lakota soar with the eagles

Being honored with eagle feathers pushes our tribe to better the people, not just the individual. Oyate kin yanipi kte lo. “So that the people will live.” Not just our people, but also the  wild creatures that have embodied our best values.
By Tristan Picotte

Opinion: Heed the nightingale's song

Looking forward means looking back and listening to what birds are telling us. Heeding their warnings gives us hope that their songs will endure.
By John Fitzpatrick, Cornell Lab of Ornithology



Robins dying in a mid-Michigan town

A neighborhood’s songbirds are being poisoned by DDT, a pesticide that was banned in the United States more than 40 years ago.
By Brian Bienkowski

Experts question EPA's handling of bird-killing site

Health experts are questioning the Environmental Protection Agency and Michigan state officials for their decades-long delays in cleanup of a Superfund site that is killing songbirds in yards, possibly leaving people at risk, too.
By Brian Bienkowski

Continuing coverage:

Good for the gander? As Alaska warms, a goose forgoes a 3,300-mile migration.

Virtually every Pacific black brant – about 160,000 birds – is gathered now in a remote corner of Alaska, feasting on the most extensive eelgrass beds on Earth. This was just a stopover in the brant's autumn journey to Mexico. But nature no longer follows that predictable course.
By Marianne Lavelle

The journalists behind Winged Warnings 


“Birds can tell time in their brains.

They know what time of day it is, what tomorrow is going to be like. They know where they are in the world using solar information. They are phenomenally attuned to time and space to the point of approaching science fiction. You don't need science fiction.”

–Biologist Steve Schoech
University of Memphis

“Another terrible year.

Normally, there would be hundreds of birds here. There may be a few chicks. But they probably won’t make it. The birds are just sitting on their empty nests. And eventually they will leave.”

–Ornithologist Aevar Petersen

“Unfortunately for birds they’re the sentinels.

If we ignore what we see in birds we ignore real risk.”

–Linda Birnbaum
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

“Sometimes I feel like it’s a Hydra.

You cut off one head and several more spring up. It becomes almost a frantic feeling. You’re just looking at one [chemical contaminant] and they’ve developed ten more. You just can’t keep up with the pace.”

–Cynthia de Wit
Stockholm University

“When you see one that's so deformed,

you have a visceral reaction. It's hard not to have thoughts that if it's something in the chickadee's environment, it's in our environment, too.”

–Sandra Talbot
U.S. Geological Survey

“I get attached to every single one.

I’m rooting for them to be OK, even though I know we cannot save them all.”

–Meghan Warren
Teton Raptor Center

“If you or I walked into a hospital

and tested out with the [mercury] level that these osprey chicks have in their blood, it would be Code Red.”

–Erick Greene
University of Montana

“It was a spring without voices.

On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound.”

–Rachel Carson
Silent Spring

 EHN welcomes republication of our stories, but we require that publications include the author's name and Environmental Health News at the top of the piece, along with a link back to EHN's version.

For questions or feedback about this piece, contact


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Follow us: 

Recent Environmental Health News coverage