For the Birds Radio Program: Thunderstorms

Original Air Date: Sept. 24, 1990

How do birds far in storms?

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When the Statue of Liberty says to send her the homeless, tempest-tossed, I’m not sure she’s thinking about birds. But the many storm systems ripping through the Northland this autumn have left a lot of storm-tossed birds in their wake. People have been calling me about bitterns, shorebirds, and flickers that they’ve found after thunderstorms, some with broken wings and other injuries. And many of them have asked me whether it’s normal for birds to be injured in storms.

Yes it is. The rain itself isn’t usually too harmful except during the nesting season. Baby birds sometimes get so wet that they die of hypothermia. American Goldfinch nestlings sometimes drown right in their nest–the thistle-down lining makes the nest as waterproof as a teacup.

Hailstones probably take a much bigger toll than rain. In 1938, a biologist discovered two dead California Condors that had apparently been pelted by hailstones while eating a horse carcass. In July 1953, two hailstorms in Alberta, Canada, killed fully 150,000 ducks and geese, and countless other birds too small too document. In the autumn of 1960, thousands of Sandhill Cranes were killed by storms in New Mexico. And again, even more small birds were killed.

Lightning takes a toll, too. More than one tree struck down by lightning has been found to contain dead woodpeckers, owls, or other birds. In the early 1980s, John James Audubon saw two nighthawks struck down by lightning in Florida. In 1941, an ornithologist watched four Double-crested Cormorants fall out of a flock after a flash of lightning. All four were dead, though their feathers were not scorched. 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 burned, but autopsies revealed that many of the others died from the impact when they fell to the ground. Two years earlier, in 1939, another ornithologist watched 34 pelicans get blasted out of the sky. And both Bald Eagles and Ospreys have been killed by lightning when sitting atop their nests in tall trees during storms.

Hurricanes take a far greater toll than most other natural phenomena.