At least hundreds of birds have been sent to the hospital during deadly heat waves that have swept across South Asia and killed dozens of people in India.
The extreme heat has not just endangered human life but also threatened other animals.
One hospital in the Indian city of Gurgaon said it had treated a record number of birds for conditions such as fever, dehydration and heatstroke as temperatures rose to over 46 degrees Celsius (114.8 F) this week.
“The culprit is the heat,” Dr Rajkumar Rajput, a veterinarian at the Charitable Bird Hospital in Gurgaon, in northern India, told VICE World News. He said his hospital admitted at least 50 percent more of the feathered patients compared to previous years.
India recorded the hottest March in 122 years and its capital, Delhi, had its second-hottest April in 72 years with an average maximum temperature of 40.2 degrees Celsius (104.4 F). Neighbouring Pakistan has also reported unusually high temperatures due to record heat waves.
“We’re inundated with calls, and it’s just May,” said Arindita Sandilya, a spokesperson for Wildlife SOS. The animal rescue group in India said it had treated 250 birds with heat-related illnesses since March. “We’re expecting these calls to increase in the coming months when the summer really takes off.”
The blistering heat in the Indian subcontinent have highlighted what many experts say are the effects of climate change, which has raised the frequency and intensity of heat waves that batter countries including India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
In India, heat waves have killed at least 17,000 people over the last 50 years, although heat-related deaths are vaguely defined and underreported.
In the last two months alone, the Indian state of Maharashtra reported 25 human deaths caused by heatstroke. Several other states have reported similar deaths.
There’s no official data on the impact of heat waves on birds and other animals. In one Indian state, poultry farmers recently reported deaths of thousands of chickens, while in another state, four wolf cubs succumbed to the heat in their zoo enclosures.
Outside the Indian subcontinent, severe heat waves in western Canada and northwestern U.S. last year were estimated to have killed over a billion marine animals in addition to causing over 500 human deaths and triggering hundreds of wildfires.
Not even birds are spared from the detrimental consequences of extreme heat. In the last two months, rescue groups in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad reportedly rescued 166 dehydrated birds.
Rajput, of Charitable Bird Hospital, said his facility had admitted 80 birds with heatstroke since April. A majority of the birds are pigeons, some kept by people as pets but mostly wild animals brought in by concerned citizens.
“The birds keep our natural habitats like jungles in control,” Rajput said. “Their loss will impact the growth of our natural green cover.”
Kartick Satyanarayan, the head of Wildlife SOS, said the group’s rapid response teams mostly rescued black kites, which fly at higher altitudes and are more prone to heat exhaustion.
“While descending in search of prey or water, they collapse on the ground,” Satyanarayan told VICE World News.
Amid record temperatures in the Western Hemisphere last year, baby hawks reportedly jumped out of their nests to escape heat before they could fly, sometimes leading to injuries or even death.
Studies show that environmental extremes have previously impacted wildlife to the point of extinction. John J. Wiens, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona, estimated that 16 percent of all plant and animal species would be wiped out by 2070 even if there is just moderate global warming.
Recent research found that multiple animals have evolved in the last two centuries to change their body shapes to cope with a warming climate. Several species of birds, for example, have increased in their beak size, which helps divert blood flow to disperse heat.
Ashwin Viswanathan, a conservationist and researcher with National Conservation Foundation in New Delhi, said that overheating is just one of many ways climate change threatens birds, as a warming climate also affects their food supply, breeding, and habitats.
“There’s so much about this impact that we don’t see,” he said. “But we need to pay heed to it.”
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