I am broadly interested in the ecology and conservation of birds. I completed my Ph.D. in the UW Quantitative Ecology Lab. My dissertation was titled Fire, Smoke, and Song: Exploring the impact of particle pollution on bird observations and acoustic activity. This work was a direct extension of my master’s thesis, completed at the UW–Madison Center for Sustainability & the Global Environment under the mentorship of Dr. Tracey Holloway. In my research, I use community science data and field measurements to study how urban air pollution and wildfire smoke impact birds and our observations of them.

In addition to my research on air pollution impacts on birds, I have contributed to studies on avian responses to human disturbance and plastic pollution. In 2020, I developed and led a community science project to monitor how changes in human mobility during COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns influenced bird activity in cities throughout the Pacific Northwest. As the project coordinator, I recruited, trained, and engaged ~900 volunteers from four states and British Columbia. Findings from this study were recently published in Scientific Reports. From 2018 to 2019, I contributed to the development of a long-term seabird monitoring project in Tetiaroa, a remote atoll in French Polynesia. In my role as a research assistant, I collaborated on development of study design and sampling and survey protocols and coordinated our fieldwork abroad. On the atoll, I conducted avian point count surveys, collected sand and water samples, and documented extensive field notes; back in the lab, I evaluated water samples for presence of microplastics.

Current research activities:

1) using data from eBird to model the impacts of wildfire smoke on bird observations

2) monitoring birds before, during, and after wildfires and prescribed burns to characterize the effects of wildfire smoke on bird behavior

3) developing a new community science project to study how wildfire smoke influences avian activity, specifically use of bird feeders and bird baths

Olivia with a bioacoustic monitor she helped deploy in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
Olivia collecting water samples in Tetiaroa, a remote atoll in French Polynesia, to test for microplastics.
Olivia setting up bioacoustic monitors and camera traps at a sampling location in eastern Washington.

Silent Summers: Impact oF Wildfire Smoke on acoustic activity

We are currently analyzing acoustic data collected at monitoring sites in areas prone to wildfires in eastern Washington state. We plan to use ecoacoustic indices to characterize how wildlife activity was impacted by wildfire smoke in the summers of 2019 and 2020.

TEAM: Olivia V. Sanderfoot, Sarah B. Bassing, Trent Roussin, Beth Gardner


Drivers of avian habitat use and detection of backyard birds in the Pacific Northwest during COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns

Birds living in developed areas contend with numerous stressors, including human disturbance and light, noise, and air pollution. COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns presented a unique opportunity to disentangle these effects during a period of reduced human activity. We launched a community science project in spring 2020 to explore drivers of site use by and detection of common birds in cities under lockdown in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. Our goals were twofold: (1) consider how intensity of urbanization, canopy cover, and availability of bird feeders and bird baths influenced avian habitat use; and (2) quantify how daily changes in weather, air pollution, and human mobility influenced detection of birds. We analyzed 6,640 surveys from 367 volunteers at 429 monitoring sites using occupancy models for 46 study species. Neither land cover nor canopy cover influenced site use by 50% of study species, suggesting that backyard birds may have used a wider range of habitats during lockdowns. Human mobility affected detection of 76% of study species, suggesting that birds exhibited species-specific behavioral responses to day-to-day changes in human activity beginning shortly after initial lockdown restrictions were implemented. Our study also showcases how existing community science platforms can be leveraged to support local monitoring efforts.

TEAM: Olivia V. Sanderfoot, Joel D. Kaufman, Beth Gardner

PROJECT STATUS: Published in Scientific Reports

Click below to download reports and updates provided to our volunteers. Our sincere gratitude goes to all of the volunteers whose inspiring efforts made our research possible.

A review of the effects of wildfire smoke on the health and behavior of wildlife

Climate change is intensifying global wildfire activity, and people and wildlife are increasingly exposed to hazardous air pollution during large-scale smoke events. Although wildfire smoke is considered a growing risk to public health, few studies have investigated the impacts of wildfire smoke on wildlife, particularly among species that are vulnerable to smoke inhalation. In this review, we synthesized research to date on how wildfire smoke affects the health and behavior of wildlife. After executing a systematic search using Web of Science, we found only 41 relevant studies. We synthesized findings from this literature and incorporated knowledge gained from fields outside wildlife science, specifically veterinary medicine and air pollution toxicology. Although studies that directly investigated effects of smoke on wildlife were few in number, they show that wildfire smoke contributes to adverse acute and chronic health outcomes in wildlife and influences animal behavior. Our review demonstrates that smoke inhalation can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning, respiratory distress, neurological impairment, respiratory and cardiovascular disease, oxidative stress, and immunosuppression in wildlife, including terrestrial and aquatic species, and these health effects can contribute to changes in movement and vocalization. Some species also use smoke as cue to engage in fire-avoidance behaviors or conserve energy. However, our review also highlights significant gaps in our understanding of the impacts of wildfire smoke on wildlife. Most notably, the lack of robust air pollution measurements in existing studies limits meta-analyses and hinders construction of dose-response relationships, thereby precluding predictions of health outcomes and behaviors under different air quality conditions, especially during extreme smoke events. We recommend that future studies leverage existing data sets, infrastructure, and tools to rapidly advance research on this important conservation topic and highlight the potential value of interdisciplinary collaborations between ecologists and atmospheric chemists.

TEAM: Olivia V. Sanderfoot, Sarah B. Bassing, Jamie L. Brusa, Robbie L. Emmet, Sierra Gillman, Kaeli Swift, Beth Gardner

PROJECT STATUS: Published in Environmental Research Letters

Wildfire smoke affects detection of birds in Washington state

Wildfire smoke is likely to have direct health effects on birds as well as influence movement, vocalization, and other avian behaviors. These behavioral changes may affect if and how birds are observed in the wild, although research on the effects of wildfire smoke on bird behavior is limited. To evaluate how wildfire smoke affects detection of birds, we combined data from eBird, an online community science program, with data from an extensive network of air quality monitors in the state of Washington over a 4-year period. We assessed how PM2.5, a marker of smoke pollution, affected the probability of observing 71 bird species during the wildfire seasons of 2015–2018 using bird observations from 62,908 eBird checklists. After accounting for habitat, weather conditions, seasonality, and survey effort, we found that PM2.5 affected the probability of observing 37% of study species. The ambient concentration of PM2.5 was negatively associated with the probability of observing 16 species and positively associated with the probability of observing 10 species, indicating that birds exhibit species-specific behavioral changes during wildfire smoke events that influence how they are observed. Our results suggest that wildfire smoke impacts the presence, availability, and/or perceptibility of birds. Impacts of smoke pollution on human observers, such as impaired visibility, may also influence detection of birds. These results provide a foundation for developing mechanistic hypotheses to explain how birds, and our studies of them, are impacted by wildfire smoke. Given the projected increase in large-scale wildfire smoke events under future climate change scenarios, understanding how birds are affected by wildfire smoke—and how air pollution may influence our ability to detect them—are important next steps to inform wildlife research and avian conservation.

TEAM: Olivia V. Sanderfoot, Beth Gardner

PROJECT STATUS: Published in Ornithological Applications

Air pollution impacts on avian species via inhalation exposure and associated outcomes

Despite the well-established links between air pollution and human health, vegetation, and aquatic ecosystems, less attention has been paid to the potential impact of reactive atmospheric gases and aerosols on avian species. In this literature review, we summarize findings published since 1950 regarding avian responses to air pollution and discuss knowledge gaps that could be addressed in future studies. We find consistent evidence for adverse health impacts on birds attributable to exposure to gas-phase and particulate air pollutants, including carbon monoxide (CO), ozone (O3), sulfur dioxide (SO2), smoke, and heavy metals, as well as mixtures of urban and industrial emissions. Avian responses to air pollution include respiratory distress and illness, increased detoxification effort, elevated stress levels, immunosuppression, behavioral changes, and impaired reproductive success. Exposure to air pollution may furthermore reduce population density, species diversity, and species richness in bird communities.

TEAM: Olivia V. Sanderfoot, Tracey Holloway

PROJECT STATUS: Published in Environmental Research Letters