For the Birds Radio Program: Birds in Thunderstorms

Original Air Date: July 31, 1987

Lightning, hail, and high winds take a huge toll on birds. (3:31) (Substantially reworked from 8/13/86) Reworked again in 1998, with reference to the St. Peter tornadoes, based on this transcript.

Duration: 3′30″


(Recording of an American White Pelican)

Last week’s storm in the Twin Cities was hard on birds as well as people. But quantifying the destruction of birds is not an easy task. Apparently not too many ornithologists stay outdoors during storms watching for lightning or hailstones to strike birds, so there isn’t too much information about this in the ornithological literature. There are recorded cases of baby goldfinches drowning in their nest, which is so well waterproofed with its thistle down lining that rainwater can’t run through it. And many nests and nestlings are knocked out of trees during high winds.

In the early 1800’s, John James Audubon saw two nighthawks struck down by lightning in Florida. In 1939, one ornithologist just happened to witness a bolt of lightning blast 34 white pelicans out of the sky in Nebraska. In 1941, one ornithologists watched four Double-crested Cormorants fall out of a flock after a sharp flash of lightning. All four 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 on impact with the ground. Both Bald Eagles and Ospreys have been killed by lightning while sitting atop their nests in tall trees during storms.

Hailstorms take a large toll, too. Over 148,000 ducks and geese were killed in two hailstorms in Alberta, Canada, in July, 1953, along with countless smaller birds. A 30-minute hailstorm in New Mexico in October, 1960, killed about a thousand Sandhill Cranes. And, most curiously of all, in 1938, a biologist discovered two dead Califormia Condors which had apparently been beaned by hailstones while eating a horse carcass. Considering how few condors there are–now only a handful remain, all in Califormia zoos–hail thus represents a significant cause of this species’ ultimate demise.

Hurricanes take an incredible toll of birds, including many Wisconsin and Minnesota birds migrating 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 may beat facing the elements armed with just a thin layer of feathers and a family tree seventy million years old. As the eminent ornithologist, Joel Carl Welty, wrote, “On all sides and at all times, birds are surrounded by threats to their lives.” But if thinking of all this destruction saddens 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 a Black-capped Chickadee)

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