For the Birds Radio Program: Bad Spring Weather

Original Air Date: April 5, 1991

Laura talks about the recent storm’s effect on birds, and recounts a devastating storm in 1904. (4:04) Date confirmed.

Audio missing


The ice storm that hit the Northland a couple of weeks ago was as hard on birds as it was on TV transmission towers. I lost a whole chickadee flock—they were probably trapped in their roos holes by a chick coat of ice until they died of starvation. There are records of birds up to the size of Barred Owls literally entombed in their nest hole during an ice storm.

Spring storms are devastating to birds. March and April often are marked by spring storms that pelt birds with wet snow and ice. Birds can survive a January blizzard and temperatures 30 below much more easily than they can sleet with temperatures 30 above. By the end of winter, their fat reserves are pretty much down to nothing, and before trees leaf out and a new batch of insects emerges, food supplies are at their lowest level.

Birds usually are inconspicuous in death. It’s usually hard to quantify exactly how many die in storms like this. But once in a while, a spring storm hits with such ferocity that dead birds are impossible to miss. The night of March 13 and 14, 1904, was just such a night, when a storm hit southwestern Minnesota and northwestern Iowa and killed millions of Lapland Longspurs. Thomas Sadler Roberts, the premier ornithologist in the Midwest back then, wrote of the catastrophe:

The night was very dark but not cold, and a heavy, wet snow was falling with but little wind stirring Migrating Longspurs came from the Iowa prairies in a vast horde, and from about 11 p.m. until morning incredible numbers met their deaths in and about villages by flying against buildings, electric light poles and wires, and by dashing forcibly onto the frozen ground and ice, as in their wet, snow-laden, and bewildered condition they whirled and circled about in aimless flight. … (T)he greatest destruction had taken place in the four counties in the southwestern corner of the state, though birds had been killed in lesser numbers over a much wider area. At Worthington, in Nobles County, an attempt was made at a computation of the number of Longspurs lying dead in that vicinity. On two small lakes, with an aggregate area of about two square miles, the ice was still intact and nearly bare from the melting snow. This exposed surface was thickly and evenly strewn with dead Longspurs. By measuring a number of squares, counting the birds in each, and averaging these counts, it was possible to make a fair estimate of the number of bodies on the whole area. A conservative calculation showed that there were at least 750,000 dead Longspurs lying on these two lakes alone! The adjoining uplands, the streets of the town, and the roofs of the buildings were strewn with bodies in equal numbers. And this was only one locality in the extensive area throughout which the birds were killed.

Dr. Roberts continues:

One hundred of the bodies were picked up at random and carefully dissected. It was found that all had died by violence, chiefly crushed skulls, broken necks, and internal hemorrhages. It was also disclosed that the stomachs of all were entirely empty, though the bodies were fat and in good general condition. This lack of food ma have been a contributing factor in the destruction of the birds.

The first sign that the spring storm of 1991 was finally ebbing was not the return of TV and radio stations to the air—it was chickadees returning to feeders. In spite of their fragility and their harsh and difficult lives, it was birds who first brought song to the earth, and who bring hope and cheer to us throughout their all-too-brief lives.