For the Birds Radio Program: Hurricanes and Birds

Original Air Date: Sept. 28, 1998

Laura considers how powerful storms affect birds, and how hard it is for birds blown off-course.

Duration: 4′27″


Watching Hurricane Georges wreak his anger on the Caribbean and Gulf, seeing what happens to whole buildings and solid human bodies when confronted with powerful winds, I wonder how delicate birds with hollow bones survive storms that sink mighty ships and blast buildings apart.

Right in the center of a storm, people have better things to do than birdwatch, so it’s hard to track birds through the worst of a hurricane. Many of them are blown off by the approaching storm so they don’t actually catch the brunt of it, but being blown hundreds of miles from home is no picnic either. In September 1876, a hurricane struck the West Indies and carried Sooty Terns from the Bahamas and Dry Tortugas all the way up to New England. The same storm pushed a tropicbird to New York and a frigatebird to Nova Scotia.

An even ruder storm in August 1893 snatched Black-capped Petrels from tropical seas and dumped them, dead and dying from exhaustion, in Virginia, New York, Massachusetts, and Vermont. Another destructive hurricane struck New England in 1938. That one carried tropicbirds and shearwaters, both which only feed in the ocean, to inland Massachusetts and Vermont, where they didn’t have a chance of survival.

Birders have long paid attention to tropical storms because they blow so many birds out of range. If a birder yearning to build up her New Jersey list spends a lot of time at Cape May in September, eventually some great ocean birds will turn up.

I don’t think most birders even think about what it must be like for the birds to be whipped around so far off course. Eight of nine Sooty Tern records and two out of two Brown Noddy records for Cape May followed hurricanes. In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book The Long Winter, the little oceanic bird Pa found in October was most likely a Dovekie from the Atlantic or an Ancient Murrelet from the Pacific, blown in by a fall storm. Wisconsin has two records of Dovekies, one shot by two boys hunting along Lake Michigan in 1908, and one found dead under some Tomah power lines in 1949. That one had only a small piece of quartz in its stomach. Single Dovekie specimens have also been taken in Grand Rapids and Lake of the Woods in Minnesota. Those poor ocean birds had been blown far, far from their natural ranges.

Unless they do get lost over land, storm-tossed birds probably don’t mind the geographical displacement nearly as much as the powerful winds jerking them about. Gulls and terns buffeted by gale-strength winds of Lake Superior make me marvel at their ability to stay aloft. Two-pound Herring Gulls never get dashed into buildings or trees even when I can barely keep my substantially heavier body standing. I wonder if they actually relish the challenge. Their only alternative to flying in an enormous wind is to hunker down and stand it out. A flock of gulls all stand facing directly into a high wind, since if they turn even slightly, the wind will whip around their feathers. But facing that wind is probably just as uncomfortable on land as in the air.

As Hurricane Georges winds down, wending its way through history and the mispronunciation annals of journalism, evacuated humans and birds alike will wend their way home and pick up the pieces. The hurricane season is a tough one. Our little hummingbirds are down on the Gulf Coast facing Georges even as I write this, but most of them will survive to finish their migration, survive the winter, and return to us again next spring. Storms come and go, but the earth ever remains pretty much the same.