How do birds cope with hurricanes?

A hurricane is a major force of nature, and is potentially devastating for everything and everyone in its path - including birds. It's hard to imagine what it must be like for a bird to tough out a hurricane. While many birds may perish, many make it through and go on to rebuild their lives. So how do they cope with hurricanes? When a hurricane is approaching, birds don't just wing it. They have several strategies for dealing with storms, and they make a conscious choice of which strategy to use.

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Satellite photo of Hurricane Irma approaching Cuba and Florida. (No, I did not take this photo! It's from NOAA.) Birds don't need satellite images or 24/7 access to the Weather Channel to know when they are threatened by a hurricane.


How do birds know a hurricane is coming?

Many animals, including birds, are sensitive to changes in barometric pressure. Of course, barometric pressure goes up and down all the time under normal circumstances, but when the pressure drops below normal fluctuations, animals know big trouble is coming their way. It's time to take action. Sharks swim to deeper water, gulls return to shore, bees fly to their hives, armadillos hide in their burrows, and squirrels retreat to their nests. Birds, thanks to their ability to fly, have more options.


Did you know?

Some researchers think birds use infrasound to detect storms, as well as to help them with their day-to-day navigation. These are low-frequency sounds that humans cannot hear, and they are generated by many natural phenomena, such as storms, crashing waves and earthquakes. This would explain how some birds seem to respond to approaching bad weather even before detectable changes in temperature, wind speeds or barometric pressure. Research is ongoing to understand this further.


Coping Strategies

Once they know a storm is coming, birds have the choice of evacuating, seeking refuge and riding out the storm, or flying into the storm to get a helpful push from the winds (yikes!). Which coping strategy they use will largely depend on whether or not they are a migratory bird. There is no perfect way to deal with the fury and destruction of a hurricane, and each of these strategies comes with its own set of risks.


Migratory birds

Migratory birds that are in harm's way may choose to begin their migration early. Strong fliers can even make use of the winds on the outer edge of the storm to push them along, speeding up their journey considerably. On the other hand, they can end up fighting some nasty headwinds, possibly with dire consequences, including death. During Hurricane Sandy, there is evidence that some birds flying south for the winter got caught up in the storm and ended up in Maine and Newfoundland. Fortunately, birds are excellent navigators and can get back on track, but that would be quite a setback for birds that have to make a migration of over 2,000 miles even if everything goes right. A big flock of chimney swifts got caught up in Wilma in 2005 and had to ride the storm all the way to Europe. A free trip to Europe sounds pretty good to me, but I suspect the chimney swifts weren't too happy about the situation.


In the fall, palm warblers migrate from Canada to Florida (like a lot of people I know). Running into a storm on their way south could have a big impact on their migration.

In the fall, palm warblers migrate from Canada to Florida (like a lot of people I know). Running into a storm on their way south could have a big impact on their migration.

Other migratory birds might choose to take a detour around the storm, which is a major big deal in terms of the amount of energy they need to expend to do that. Or, if they realize there is a hurricane raging ahead along their route, they may choose to stay where they are a little while longer until the storm moves away - assuming it's not coming right at them.


Non-migratory birds

Birds who don't migrate tend to hunker down and ride out the storm right where they are. Perching birds seek protection from the wind and rain on the leeward side of trees and shrubs. Lucky for them, their feet default to a position where they are tightly closed around the branch. That means their feet won't get tired while they are hanging on for dear life. Other birds hunker down in their nests, holes in trees, or burrows in the ground. All of these strategies have risks, though, and birds can be injured or die. Trees can blow down, and tree holes and burrows can flood. Whipping foliage and flying debris can be dangerous, too.

Another risk is getting trapped in the eye of the storm ("entrained" if you prefer the technical term). Needless to say, this is a tricky situation. If the birds stray into the eyewall, they could run into deadly winds of over 150 miles per hour in a category 5 hurricane! Researchers aren't sure exactly how birds become entrained, but they (the birds - not the researchers) have to fly along in the calm of the eye until the storm dissipates. This can result in birds being dislocated hundreds or even thousands of miles from home. Birders think this is really cool, though, because birds they never see all of a sudden show up in their back yard.


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Did you know?

The latest Doppler weather radar technology can pick up "bioscatter," or radar reflectance from biological objects such as a big flock of birds. Click here to watch a video of this weathercaster in Atlanta using radar to point out birds caught in the eye of Hurricane Matthew in 2016.



Perching birds like this grackle have evolved so their feet automatically stay locked onto their perch until they decide to let go. This prevents them from falling off their perch while sleeping or weathering a storm.

Perching birds like this grackle have evolved so their feet automatically stay locked onto their perch until they decide to let go. This prevents them from falling off their perch while sleeping or weathering a storm.

Usually seen only along the coast, brown pelicans have been known to show up a thousand miles inland after a storm. What a surprise it would be to find a pelican in your back yard in Tennessee!

Usually seen only along the coast, brown pelicans have been known to show up a thousand miles inland after a storm. What a surprise it would be to find a pelican in your back yard in Tennessee!

A roseate spoonbill, likely dislocated by Hurricane Harvey or Irma, recently showed up in New Jersey. I'm sure that sent birders running for their binoculars!

A roseate spoonbill, likely dislocated by Hurricane Harvey or Irma, recently showed up in New Jersey. I'm sure that sent birders running for their binoculars!

Fortunately, Irma caused little damage to the Dry Tortugas (near the Florida Keys). That's good news for the magnificent frigatebirds that nest there.

Fortunately, Irma caused little damage to the Dry Tortugas (near the Florida Keys). That's good news for the magnificent frigatebirds that nest there.

After the storm

Even when the storm is over and the birds are out of immediate danger, their misery doesn't necessarily end. If the storm has caused significant damage to their habitat, they may have a hard time finding food and shelter. Trees may have been stripped of protective foliage and the berries and fruits birds eat, nests may have been destroyed, and floods may have washed away food sources, such as insects, for birds that forage on the ground.

Florida scrub jays use leafy trees to hide from predators, and forage on the ground for berries, acorns, insects, and other treats. A strong hurricane could rip the leaves off the trees, and flood out their food supply. This could put further stress on their already dwindling population.

Florida scrub jays use leafy trees to hide from predators, and forage on the ground for berries, acorns, insects, and other treats. A strong hurricane could rip the leaves off the trees, and flood out their food supply. This could put further stress on their already dwindling population.

Birds can be pretty flexible when they have to be. They may try to find suitable habitat nearby, or if the destruction is widespread, they may even have to change their diet. For example, insectivores may have to become herbivores. However, the improvised diet might not provide sufficient nutritional value prior to a long migration flight or the breeding season.

Even birds that were not directly affected by the hurricane may feel its impact when they begin their migration. Both Harvey and Irma will have a big impact on birds flying south for the winter. Imagine if your first big refueling stop on the way to South America happened to be Key West or the gulf coast of Texas. You would find severe loss of habitat, and would have a hard time finding the food you need to get ready for your trip across open water. And, if your next stop is a Caribbean island, you're in for even more disappointment.


Hurricanes have been happening as long as there have been birds, and the birds are still hanging in there. While certain populations of birds sometimes take a big hit due to hurricanes, they generally manage to recover over time - although that may take many years. Unfortunately, because of climate change, the challenges presented by hurricanes are becoming more severe. You can read more about how climate change is affecting birds in a special section, below. In the long term, we need to work on solutions to climate change. In the short term, the best thing humans can do to help birds survive hurricanes is to prevent overdevelopment of coastal areas. This will ensure birds can find nearby shelter and food sources after the storm. Thoughtful coastal development will help humans weather hurricanes better, too!



Birds and climate change

Birds have graced planet Earth for hundreds of millions of years, and during that time, they have seen the planet warm and cool a number of times. While some species have gone extinct during these changes, many species of birds have been able to adapt to new climactic conditions via natural selection.

Sadly, scientists are concerned that the climate change we are experiencing now is happening faster than many bird species can adapt. Some bird populations are already under stress due to climate change, and could eventually face extinction. As temperatures rise, it's not as simple as flying north or to a higher elevation to find the cooler temperatures they are accustomed to. There may not be enough of the right kind of food or shelter in those areas, and they may face predators for which they have not evolved defenses.

Migratory birds (most birds that live in temperate climates) face a special challenge. Birds are adapted to synchronize their nesting cycles so there is maximum food availability when their chicks will need the most nutrition. Of course, their migration needs to be timed just right for them to take advantage of that. The timing of a bird's migration is based on length of daylight hours, which is not affected by climate change. However, climate change does affect the timing of their food supply. Rising temperatures are causing their food sources (plants and the insects that rely on them) to peak sooner. That means birds are arriving at their nesting grounds too late to take advantage of the plentiful food supply. This can certainly make it harder for those birds to reproduce and survive over the long run.

Hurricanes have the potential to put even more stress on bird populations. Climate change does not cause hurricanes, but it creates the conditions for these storms to be more severe. Climate scientists agree this is likely what just happened with Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria - all of which caused terrible destruction and loss of life. Stronger storms combined with rising sea levels have the potential to cause flooding, permanent inundation of coastal and low-lying inland ecosystems, beach erosion, altered plant communities, and more. This would negatively affect birds that live in coastal areas year round, as well as birds that stop there to refuel before continuing their migration.

It's important to note that droughts exacerbated by climate change are also already having a big impact on bird populations. Like hurricanes, droughts and wildfires have a large and lasting impact on birds' habitats, food supply, migration patterns, and reproductive success.

Why should we care about climate change's impact on birds? Birds play a key role in our ecosystem, performing important services such as pest control, sanitation, pollination and seed dispersal. Plus, our world is a more beautiful place with birds in it.

I realize this isn't a very happy story, but it can have a happy ending. If we implement policies now that combat climate change, we can make our planet a more livable place, boost our economy, and secure a better future for birds - and most importantly, for ourselves.



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