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Birds In Storms

Dear Bird Folks,

Like many people, I have been watching the devastation created by the recent string of hurricanes. My heart goes out to the people impacted by these powerful storms, but a part of me also worries about the birds. If buildings can’t stand up to these mighty winds, how do the birds manage?

– Sheryl, Falmouth, MA


I agree, Sheryl,

I’m sure everyone reading this column has at least a casual interest in the welfare of birds. However, it doesn’t mean we don’t have a greater concern for the thousands of folks who have been battered by this year’s hurricanes. But since this is a birding column and not CNN, I think we can be forgiven for focusing on the effects that storms have on birds. You are also not alone with your concern. We receive lots of bird related hurricane questions, and the story below is my favorite of the week.

Last Sunday, a slightly harried-looking man came into my shop insisting on speaking to a “bird expert.” Casey looked at me with an expression on his face that said, “This is going to be a good one.” Casey’s face was right. It was a good one. The guy, whose name I unfortunately never got, wanted to know if birds survive hurricanes by flying into the “eye.” He went on to tell me that he had a $100 bet with his wife on this topic and that my answer would determine the winner. Ordinarily, I say the first thing that comes to my mind. That way, I can get on with the rest of my day. But since there was some serious cash riding on my response, I focused more than usual. I spent the next ten minutes explaining the various methods birds use to cope with storms and how migrating and resident birds respond differently. Throughout my entire dissertation the guy looked at me intently, seemingly understanding what I was saying. Finally, he apparently heard what he was looking for, thanked me and headed out the door while shouting, “I just won a hundred bucks.” There are two things to be learned from this exchange. First, the guy’s wife should have never let him come in without her. Who knows what he heard me say, because I barely understood it myself. Also, the next time someone stands to win a bet based on my answer, I need to insist on a piece of the action. I totally dropped the ball on this one.

Birds have been dealing with hurricanes for centuries and thus have evolved several strategies for surviving them. For example, migrating birds don’t all leave at the same time. Migration is more of a staggered process, which prevents weather from impacting an entire population. Also, during fall migration birds tend to wait for “tail” winds to help push them along. Conversely, they typically sit tight when storm winds are blowing from the south. And I think we’ve all seen our feeder birds having a major chow-fest before a storm is due to arrive. How do birds know when a storm is coming? We used to think (or at least I did) that birds could feel the pressure changes in their bones, which are hollow. But it turns out that birds actually feel falling pressure (an indication of a coming storm) in their hypersensitive ears. Speaking of hearing, scientists now believe that birds can actually “hear” storms coming. Migrating birds have been known to mysteriously alter their route to avoid an area before a storm is due to arrive, and long before there are any atmospheric changes in pressure. How is this possible? It’s because they hear infrasound. Duh! Don’t you know nuthin’? Infrasound is a very low frequency that is out of the range of human hearing. In nature, infrasound is produced by earthquakes, volcanoes, crashing waves, etc. The old adage, “the animals are always the first to know,” may be attributed to their ability to detect infrasound. Evidence suggests that migrating birds can hear a storm raging hundreds of miles away and will adjust their movements accordingly.

Regrettably, birds’ ability to avoid storms isn’t perfect and undoubtedly many are lost to the deadly winds. Others are pushed or carried into unfamiliar areas where they struggle to find their natural food. However, I think the most serious problem for birds is the changes hurricanes make to the landscape. Birds tend to stop along the coast and refuel before and after crossing expanses of open water. When storm surges and winds destroy the last bit of remaining coastal habitat, migrating birds have no place to stop and eat. It would be like if you drove south and found that your favorite Cracker Barrel was closed…although if they closed all the Cracker Barrels, it wouldn’t bother me.

What about the harried guy and his question about birds flying into a hurricane’s eye? While it is true that birds, particularly seabirds, are often found in the eye of a hurricane, it’s unlikely that they purposely seek refuge there. Birds essentially become trapped by the fierce winds and will continue to fly inside the storm for as long as they possibly can. Hopefully, they will be able to hang on until the storm dissipates and they can finally escape. Unfortunately, if they end up near land, they have to face something even worse…bird watchers. The poor birds can’t catch a break.

It’s okay to worry about the birds, Sheryl. Being concerned about birds doesn’t mean you don’t also care about people. We can do both. Although, if you are going to feel bad for anyone, feel bad for me. I totally blew a chance to get a piece of a $100 bet. What was I thinking?