For the Birds Radio Program: Hurricanes and Birds

Original Air Date: Sept. 8, 2004

This year’s hurricanes have pushed a lot of birds around.

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Hurricanes and Birds

I just received an email from a dear correspondent of mine asking what effects Hurricane Charley and Frances have had on birds. She’s naturally worried—birds don’t have access to The Weather Channel or other sources to find out weeks or several days in advance that they should evacuate an area. They do detect falling barometric pressure, but storms are hard on them, and a long, drawn-out storm like Frances can be particularly lethal.

Of course, when a storm has a devastating impact on human beings, killing some and leaving thousands in shelters and millions without power, the news is very slow to report on impacts on birds. And bird bodies are small and fragile, so mixed in with fallen trees and other storm debris, most dead birds are probably not even detectable after a storm.

But despite the severity of the hurricanes, most of the birds that were out in them weathered the storm. Between bands of Frances, when the rain and winds subsided, birds filled feeders and trees, pigging out. During the worst of it, hummingbirds, songbirds and hawks seek shelter in trees, clinging tightly and safely unless the branch is torn off. Ducks and grebes can swim, staying afloat and getting doused in the high waves, but breathing as they surface. Herons and ibises may hunker down in roost trees, and cranes literally lay low, crouched down on the ground with their neck flattened to the ground. Some don’t make it through. But after both hurricanes, people reported on various Florida birding listserves that birds were still showing up at feeders and migrants were plentiful.

I was especially concerned about the endangered Florida Scrub-Jays, so I wrote to the National Bird Chat internet list serve, and Kevin Breault of Brentwood, TN, quickly responded. Kevin had visited Merritt Island NWR (which has the largest population of the jays) just two days after Charley and wrote that the refuge was unaffected except for the closing of a road at the northern end of the refuge usually used for fishing. He also said that a friend who works for NASA (at the space center.) also thinks the birds weathered the second storm in good shape.

Because of the powerful winds and huge size of hurricanes, they often push a lot of seabirds to unexpected areas. The moment a hurricane is predicted, birders start wondering what rarities the storm will push their way. Magnificent Frigatebirds that normally stay out at sea or spend time far out in the Florida keys were seen over people’s backyards well inland in Florida. One birder from Naples reported that 10 species of terns including Sooty, Bridled & Gull-billed, were also found inland. In Punta Gorda, devastated by Charley, another birder saw a Wilson’s Storm-Petrel and a Sooty tern on the Peace River at the mouth of Charlotte Harbor, though these species also belong out at sea.

Birders in Minnesota and Wisconsin have been wondering what rarities may turn up in our area in the storm’s aftermath, knowing that birds blown far off course sometimes get even more lost as they try to find their way back home. Magnificent Frigatebirds, Dovekies, and Ancient Murrelets have all turned up in Wisconsin and Minnesota over the years. One Sooty Tern was killed by a car in Wisconsin in 1984, in the aftermath of Hurricane Diana. It’s of course thrilling to see a bird that far from its expected range, but even though birders can’t help but rejoice in the rarities, I can’t help but hope that none show up, for the birds’ sake.