For the Birds Radio Program: Birds in Thunderstorms

Original Air Date: Aug. 13, 1986

This is the first program Laura did about birds dealing with bad weather.

Audio missing


American White Pelican

(Recording of a White Pelican)

That was the call of a young White Pelican–one of the few species of birds with known cases of death by lightning. One ornithologist just happened to witness a bolt of lightning blast 34 pelicans out of the sky during an electrical storm in Nebraska in 1939.

Last week my car was pelted with hail when I was caught in a sudden thunderstorm, and I started wondering about whether hail and lightning aren’t hazards for birds without so much as an umbrella to shelter them during summer storms. Apparently not too many ornithologists stay outdoors during hail storms watching for hailstones to strike birds, so there isn’t much information about this in the ornithological literature. But I did manage to unearth a few curious anecdotes about birds and storms.

In 1938, one biologist discovered two dead California Condors which had apparently been beaned by hailstones while eating a horse carcass. Considering how few condors there are–the U.S. Fish and Wildlife recently won a court case allowing it to capture the very last two condors known to survive in the wild–hail thus represents a significant cause of this species’ ultimate demise.

150,000 ducks, geese, and their young were killed in two hailstorms in Alberta, Canada in July, 1953. Although evidence after those storms indicate terrible destruction of other species of birds as well, those deaths were impossible to quantify. Hailstorms in New Mexico in October and November of 1960 killed thousands of Sandhill Cranes and countless smaller birds.

Reports of lightning killing birds are even more rare than reports of hail–Benjamin Franklin was probably one of the last scientists who didn’t know enough to come in out of an electrical storm–but lightning may be a common killer of birds. In the early 1800’s, John James Audubon saw two nighthawks struck down by lightning in Florida. In 1941, one ornithologist watched four double-crested cormorants fall out of a flock after a sharp flash of lightning–all four birds were dead, although their feathers were unmarked. In another storm, more than 50 Snow Geese were blasted out of a large flock by a single lightning streak–at least one goose was badly mangled, and autopsies revealed that many of the others apparently died from the impact with the ground. And both Bald Eagles and Ospreys have been killed by lightning when sitting atop their nests in tall trees during storms.

Hurricanes take an incredible toll of birds–including many of our own Minnesota and Wisconsin birds migrating south along the east coast in fall. And it would be impossible to quantify just how many birds are killed by all the tornadoes that roar through the midwest each summer. No wonder not a single U.S. insurance company provides coverage for wild birds.

All in all, the trappings of civilization sure beat facing the elements armed with just a thin layer of feathers and a family tree seventy million years long. But if thinking about all this destruction is depressing you, just look out your window at the many birds that survived last week’s storm. Birds are certainly fragile, but without a doubt they are here to stay.

(Recording of Snow Geese)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”