A Million Migrating Birds Expecting Kansas Wetlands Will Find Dust

Large sections of Kansas that are usually green and lush are bone-dry due to drought, which is expected to have an impact on many species of birds that migrate through the area.

Cheyenne Bottoms in Kansas is the largest interior wetlands in the U.S. and is located around 110 miles northwest of Wichita.

canada goose over wetlands
A stock image of a Canada goose flying over Wakarusa Wetlands in Kansas. The Cheyenne Bottoms wetlands, also crucial for migratory birds, are nearly entirely dry due to drought. iStock / Getty Images Plus

In 2022, however, the wetlands are nearly completely dry, due to a drought baking the region, having contained next-to-no water since June.

"We are 100 percent dry. There's no water on the property," Cheyenne Bottoms' wildlife area manager Jason Wagner told The Wichita Eagle. "This year is kind of the perfect storm."

Kansas Drought and the Dead Cattle

The U.S. Drought Monitor shows that, as of November 15, more than a third of the whole state of Kansas is in "Exceptional Drought," the highest level measured by the monitor. The rest of the state ranges from "Abnormally Dry" to "Extreme Drought," with zero percent of Kansas's area experiencing no such conditions.

These conditions are thought to have been brought on by a combination of unusually low rainfall and high temperatures: a Kansas State University report has shown that the third quarter of 2022 is the driest since records began in 1895 in southeast Kansas, and the second driest on record in southcentral Kansas.

These extremely dry and hot weather conditions have led to mass deaths of animals, including livestock. In July 2022, more than 2,000 cattle were reported to have died from heatstroke over the course of a few days.

USDM kansas drought
U.S. Drought Monitor image of the drought conditions affecting Kansas as of November 15, 2022. Large sections of the state that are usually green and lush are bone-dry due to drought. U.S. Drought Monitor / Brad Rippey / U.S. Department of Agriculture

Cheyenne Bottoms: A Vital Pit Stop for Birds

The drying up of Cheyenne Bottoms, which is a rest stop for between 750,000 and 1 million birds each year during their annual migrations south, will also likely have wide-spanning impacts on wildlife.

Tom Langen, a professor of wetlands ecology at Clarkson University in New York, told Newsweek: "The Kansas wetlands are particularly important for migratory shorebirds, waterfowl, cranes and other waterbirds. Shorebirds and waterfowl breed in the Arctic tundra, the bogs of the great boreal forest belt, or the prairie pothole regions.

"They stop off in Kansas because the wetlands are vast, shallow, teeming with small worms and other invertebrates that provide the food that shorebirds need, and seeds that some of the waterfowl feed on," added Langen.

"The birds then head south, to the Gulf Coast, Central and South America, and some as far as Chile and Argentina. On the return trip in spring, they also use the Kansas wetlands."

In 2022, however, the usual influx to the wetlands is missing.

"Our bird numbers are nothing [this year]," Wagner said. "Most of them aren't even stopping because there's nothing for them to stop for."

cheyenne bottoms
Stock image of migrating blackbirds flocking in Cheyenne Bottoms in Kansas. The flocks will find dust, instead of water, in 2022, because of the continuing drought. iStock / Getty Images Plus

Depending on the species, this lack of pitstop is likely to have a severe impact on many of the birds.

"Many long-distance migrant birds depend on stopover sites to rest and 'fuel up' by feeding enough to reacquire fat that will provide energy for the next leg of the trip. Birds, because they fly, can store only so much fat, not enough to make the whole trip. This is especially true for small birds. So safe, food-rich stopover sites are crucial," Langen said.

Lisa Webb, an assistant unit leader and cooperative associate professor at the United States Geological Survey Missouri Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, told Newsweek: "Fewer available/inundated wetlands could mean that birds fly further or have to rely on suboptimal habitats. Flying is a costly, energetic activity, and so flying greater distances between stops can decrease birds' energy reserves and leave them vulnerable to predation or other sources of mortality.

"Even if birds are able to complete migration, the energy deficit created by having to fly greater distances without stopping could leave them with fewer energy reserves to survive during winter," Webb added.

Without their rest sites, the birds may not make it to the next available source of food and water, and if they do, these sites are likely to be overcrowded.

Langen said: "At the remaining stopover-site wetlands, birds will crowd. Food competition is fierce, and there is usually less cover, so predation risk from raptors, coyotes, and other predators increases.

"Crowding can lead to epidemics of avian botulism and other diseases. So, again, survival is reduced. Those that survive the migration trip may have lower nesting success the next breeding season because of the physiological stress of inadequate stopover sites."

If this drought stretches over the course of multiple years, the populations of some of the affected migrating species may shrink.

wading bird
Stock image of a wading bird in Kansas wetlands. The drought has reduced some such environments to dust in 2022. iStock / Getty Images Plus

Langen said: "A prolonged drought is likely to cause population declines in some long-distance migrants, but it really depends on whether there are alternative sites to shift to.

"In large scale, regional prolonged droughts, like those being experienced in the Plains and throughout the American West, it is likely that there will be population declines because of inadequate availability of high-quality stopover habitat, and crowding at those that remain," he added.

"However, other stressers may be synergistic. In particular, rapid climate warming in the Arctic and boreal forests are changing the ecology of those regions, which will likely affect shorebird and waterfowl populations in ways we can't yet anticipate. The combined effects of climate change on the breeding grounds and reductions in wetlands in migratory stopover sites is worrying to conservationists."

However, Webb said that all may not be lost for these migrating birds, as their ability to fly gives them a greater degree of flexibility in their location, compared to land-based animals.

"In the short-term, drought is unlikely to lead to bird-species extinction. Although the drought may impact some individuals, wetland birds are flexible and opportunistic foragers during migrations, and a sufficient number will likely survive to maintain the population," she added.

"In the long-term, it's not clear what the impacts of drought are on migratory wetland birds. In the long-term absence of wetland availability, birds could shift their migration paths and distributions to portions of the country with more reliable water and food resources," Webb said.

When Will the Drought End in Kansas?

Meteorologists are not sure how long this drought will last, although past droughts in Kansas have stretched across several years.

The Dust Bowl, a period of drought-triggered dust storms in the Great Plains states, including Kansas, in the 1930s, is thought to have lasted up to eight years. Cheyenne Bottoms last dried up in 2013, but was refilled by late-summer rainfall before the fall migration season.

However, National Weather Service meteorologist Jeff Hutton in Dodge City told the High Plains Public Radio in August that periods of drought like these are to be expected, with farmers and other affected parties just needing to wait out the natural cycle of weather.

"They know that they're going to have to endure these bad years," Hutton said, "before we get back to the good gravy train."

Many climate scientists say that extreme weather events such as the Kansas drought will get progressively worse with time, due to the effects of climate change.

Auroop Ganguly, director of the Sustainability and Data Sciences Laboratory at Northeastern University, Boston, previously told Newsweek, "On the hydrometeorological hazards side, heat waves are getting—and are further projected to get—even hotter, cold snaps persisting even if growing less frequent, heavy precipitation getting heavier, and so on.

"The impacts can be far-reaching across multiple sectors, such as ecosystems and coastal processes, aspects of the water-energy-food nexus, infrastructures and urban lifelines," Ganguly said.

Do you have an animal or nature story to share with Newsweek? Do you have a question about drought and animals? Let us know via science@newsweek.com.