For the Birds Radio Program: October Storm

Original Air Date: Oct. 27, 2010 Rerun Dates: Oct. 30, 2012

Unprecedented storms can be hard on birds.

Duration: 4′55″


Yesterday, Wisconsin and Minnesota broke the record for lowest recorded barometric pressure, and this October storm isn’t over yet. Fierce autumn storms are to be expected in October and November, from the huge Halloween storm that dumped almost 40 inches of snow on Duluth to the November 10 storm that sunk the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Fortunately, storms aren’t nearly as dangerous for Americans as they once were, thanks to regulations setting building standards. Tragically, birds don’t benefit from these. Some birds are killed outright in storms, when wind dashes them into trees and other objects, or dashes objects into them. Hail has killed a great many birds, especially large ones—some California Condors have been killed by hail. Ice storms can seal up cavities in trees, entombing chickadees, Barred Owls, and anything in between. And any bird roosting in a tree, in a cavity or on a branch, can be killed if the tree is knocked down by wind.

Some birds, sensing changes in barometric pressure or pushed by winds, fly far away from their normal ranges in autumn storms. I was in Ithaca, New York, during the aftermath of Hurricane Ike. On September 21, 2009, a Magnificent Frigatebird—a bird belonging far out in the Gulf of Mexico or south Atlantic—turned up in a park, and hundreds of acquisitive birders went to see it. It was found dead the next day. The poor thing lies in state, in a museum drawer, at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Storm systems blow a lot of birds off course. Laura Ingalls Wilder wasn’t a birder, but she wrote a lovely account of a tiny seabird turning up in a haystack on their farm during the October blizzard that opens her book, The Long Winter. Pa brought the tiny bird, tucked in his pocket, into their cabin. She wrote:

They had never seen a bird like it. It was small, but looked exactly like the picture of the great auk in Pa’s big green book, The Wonders of the Animal World.

It had the same white breast and black back and wings, the same short legs placed far back, and the same large, webbed feet. It stood straight up on its short legs, like a tiny man with black coat and trousers and white shirt front, and its little black wings were like arms.

Pa said, “I never saw anything like it… It must have tired out in the storm winds and dropped down and struck against the haystack. It had crawled into the hay for shelter.”

The little bird couldn’t eat the kinds of food the Ingalls family offered it, but when the storm ended, they brought it to Silver Lake where it could get a running start, and its little wings carried it up into the blue sky. Laura wrote:

They never knew what became of that strange little bird that came in the dark with the storm from the far North and went southward in the sunshine. They never saw nor heard of another bird like it. They never found out what kind of bird it was.

It’s hard to be certain, but one tiny bird that would fit the description is the Dovekie, a pocket-sized little relative of puffins and murres that belongs in the northern Atlantic. There are a few records of Dovekies in the Midwest—birds that were found dead or died soon after, unable to eke out a proper meal in freshwater, and most certainly exhausted after flying so far off course.

Many lost birds do die, but some survive. As Emily Dickenson wrote:

Hope is the thing with feathers,
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune–without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm, .
That could abash the little bird, .
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.