Birds vs. Hurricanes

You’ve probably heard about the radio-tagged Whimbrel that flew through tropical storm Irene 2011. Even if you didn't, you're probably wondering how the heck she did that. (By the way, don't try this at home: if you hang glide or do other air sports, stay somewhere safe indoors during high winds!)

It may seem obvious to say so, but birds have a lot of experience with flight. For long journeys, they tend to take off when the wind is favorable, just after the passage of a low-pressure system, when it's unlikely they'll fly into a hurricane. Sometimes, however, they're caught in the end of a hurricane’s spiral and are then blown toward the eye of the hurricane, where the winds are much lower. Once they get there, they may make an effort to stay there, because flying in that relative calm takes less energy than fighting to get out. In fact, they may remain in the eye until the hurricane dissipates. 

After a hurricane, most seabirds find their way back to shore quickly if they're not too weakened from flying so long without food. Other birds, however, can require more time to recover and then take several days to return to their usual territory. It is these birds that birders are excited to see as they pass though areas where they aren't usually found. 

As hard as hurricanes are on individual birds, their habitat feels the effect more. High winds can knock nests out of trees, knock down the trees themselves, and uproot plants that birds use for food sources. For example, hurricane Hugo wiped out 60 percent of 500 groups of birds in North Carolina in 1989, and 87 percent of trees where they lived were destroyed, according to the National Wildlife Federation. If this sounds like bad news, remember that a change in habitat means a change in composition of life there, not the end of life. Yes, birds that prefer tall trees can no longer thrive when those trees are blown down, but birds that like low growth will increase their breeding population. Unlike human destruction of habitat, natural events can cause productive transformation. 

The next time we here at Talkin' Birds hear about birds being blown around by a hurricane, we'll be concerned for the birds, of course, and we might even rush to see them if it's safe to do so. However, maybe we'll plan to visit that location in a few years and see how the entire picture has changed. How about you?