Each year, between June and November, powerful and often devastating hurricanes batter the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States, damaging properties, bringing down trees and power cables, and even causing danger to life.
But what impact does this extreme weather have on birds? And what do birds do during storms? Read on as we attempt to discover how birds stay safe during hurricanes.
For some birds, especially in coastal areas, hurricanes pose a severe threat to nests, territories, and in some cases, their lives. While some birds may be able to take shelter and see out the storm, others are more vulnerable and may lose their habitat to strong winds and rising flood waters.
Even before making landfall, hurricanes can have a major effect on birdlife, with migratory birds and seabirds being caught up in the battering winds, swept off course, and suffering from exhaustion and damaged feathers as they battle against the adverse conditions.
Although hurricane season does bring survival challenges for many birds, it’s certainly not the case that all birds in hurricane-threatened locations will perish or even stick around to face the potential risk.
Some research indicates that birds may be able to sense a storm on the horizon, and are able to head for shelter or fly out of the danger zone.
Keep reading as we look into whether birds really are able to predict bad weather before it strikes, and if so, where they go to keep safe during storms.
Birds in coastal areas are affected the most by hurricanes
When a storm starts building and wind speeds begin to increase, larger birds may fly further inland, while shore birds may move to higher spots in marshlands or taller reeds. Backyard birds may simply hunker down, tucking themselves away in deep thickets, bushes or inside cavities in tree trunks.
In urban settings, birds may use buildings to their advantage, sheltering under eaves, using brick walls as barriers, and on ledges out of the direct rain and wind.
If a hurricane occurs while the breeding season is ongoing, birds that are nesting or raising young will avoid flying off and abandoning their nest where at all possible, and will stay put until the storm dissipates.
Most backyard birds will tuck themselves away in bushes - Blue Jay pictured
Storm surges and rising waters bring the risk of flooding, which is a serious threat to habitat for marshland and shore birds, such as rails, waders, plovers and seaside sparrows. The early part of hurricane season coincides with the end of the breeding season, meaning that nests, eggs, and young of shorebirds, such as plovers and black skimmers may be washed away.
If a hurricane occurs during fall migration flights, there is a risk that many small migratory birds may be blown off course as they contend with strong winds as they fly across their open-water routes.
Small birds may quickly become exhausted while flying in gale force winds and may not have the physical strength to continue.
Black Skimmer breeding season often conflicts with hurricane season
Bad weather is a common enough phenomenon faced by birds, and most species are well adapted to cope with wet, windy weather to a certain extent. Light rains do not cause serious issues for birds, although when downpours become heavier, many birds will take shelter and wait until storms pass before normal flight and foraging resumes.
During periods of prolonged rain or extreme weather, many birds will seek out a dry, sheltered spot, for example under a backyard shed, on a covered window ledge, or deep into vegetation under dense foliage. Woodland birds will huddle on branches with thick leaf cover or inside tree cavities.
For some seabirds, the safest course of action during a hurricane is to seek out the eye of the storm. The calm air in the center of the spiralling hurricane is reached by flying downwind, with birds being carried through the stronger circling gale-force winds until they reach the heart of the storm.
Rather than fighting against the winds to attempt to make it through the hurricane, they stay within the calm center and move with the hurricane.
One potential side effect of this survival technique is that these seabirds end up being carried far inland when the hurricane makes landfall, and they may find themselves in unfamiliar landscapes when the storm dies out – which is a delight for many birdwatchers, but not quite such a welcome treat for the birds who are way out of the comfort zone of their natural habitat.
Many seabirds will seek out the eye of the storm for the calmer air
Research seems to imply that birds can sense changes in air pressure that occur when a storm is imminent.
Scientists tracking bird migrations have observed patterns in migration flight routes where a sudden, sharp detour is made several days before a hurricane was building. Such changes indicate that birds are aware of an imminent storm several days before it breaks, and from several hundred miles away.
One theory is that infrasound waves, carried by storms over large distances, can be detected by birds, who on hearing these sounds, can make storm contingency plans.
Some theories suggest birds can detect storms, days before they break
Some birds will perish if a sudden storm occurs or if the sheer overpowering force of the winds and rains are too strong to withstand. Migratory birds can quickly become exhausted from attempting to fly in gales. These tiny birds may end up stranded in unfamiliar surroundings and be unable to recover sufficiently to continue with their flights.
Even larger birds may struggle to cope with the pressures of flying against strong winds, and may be tossed around by the gales and brought to land suddenly and unexpectedly, sustaining injuries on the way.
Hurricane Maria, in 2017, was devastating to the number of sharp-shinned hawks on Puerto Rico, reducing their population to just 19 birds.
Birds may indirectly die from habitat loss as a result of hurricane damage to trees, territories, nest sites, and changes to availability of food sources at foraging spots.
Nests may be blown from trees or washed away, costing the lives of young birds and sometimes their parents who are unwilling to abandon their hatchlings.
Back in 2017, Hurricane Maria signaifcally reduced the sharp-shinned hawk population of Puerto Rico
While habitat loss, threat to life, and prolonged periods where foraging for food is dangerous or even impossible, it is hard to imagine any potential advantages that may be left in the wake of a hurricane.
However, some habitats that have been dramatically altered by hurricane damage, have in fact witnessed an increase in biodiversity, with an increased variety of species benefiting from the unexpected changes to the landscape.
While most birds will avoid flying in stormy weather where at all possible, reports do exist of birds being hit by lightning while flying and dying as a result of the strike. One such report dates from 1939, in Nebraska, when a flock of 75 white pelicans was struck by lightning, and only one bird survived. The bodies of the pelicans killed by the lightning were examined and showed singed feathers.
As well as being struck by lightning mid-flight, waterfowl have also been reported to have lost their lives due to electrocution during a storm while on the water.
In 2018, 50 Canada geese died following an intense electrical storm, with the stretch of the St. Lawrence River near Montreal on which their floating bodies were discovered, acting as a giant conductor of electricity.
Three perched birds on a wire during lightning
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