Blown Away—Birds and Hurricanes


Palm Warbler_CapeCoral-FL_LAH_5520Dorian isn’t the first hurricane to pound the Caribbean, although she was definitely one of the biggest. Now she has churned her way through the Bahamas—dumping four feet of rain in some places—and along the southeastern coast of the U.S., causing tremendous flooding, demolishing buildings, and taking lives. Pete and I visited South Carolina and Florida last winter, and we’ve sailed the Abacos Islands in the Bahamas. Birds were everywhere. Now, I think of all those birds struggling to survive in the midst of those 150+ mph winds, and I wonder—how do such fragile creatures survive a hurricane?

House Wren_CorkscrewSwamp-FL_LAH_5989Sadly, as we’d expect, many don’t. But incredibly, many do. Birds and hurricanes have coexisted for a very long time, giving the seemingly fragile birds time to learn a trick or two.

Many birds seem to sense that a major storm is coming. Those about to migrate long distances, such as the 600 mile trip across the Gulf of Mexico, wait for favorable winds to speed them on their way, and so will put off their trip until the storm has passed. Those that have already headed out, and are caught far from land, struggle to finish against strong headwinds, and many don’t make it. (A recent study revealed that tiger sharks lurk just below the surface, waiting to grab the exhausted birds as they fall into the water!)

Oceanic birds—terns, gannets, frigatebirds, and petrels, for example—tend to have long wings and are strong fliers. Some may try to outrun a hurricane, while others are caught in the storm’s eye. Although they are surrounded by hurricane-force winds, the eye is calm, and the seabirds can fly for days.

BrownPelican @Florida Keys 1jan08 LAH 877Since they can’t safely leave, these captives are forced to accompany the storm wherever it goes. Tropical species end up far north of their usual range, and marine species find themselves inland, sometimes over a thousand miles from the coast. Some eventually make it home, while others remain lost and confused, and eventually die.

What about songbirds and other species that are residents of a hurricane-prone area? They are smart enough to seek whatever shelter they can find. Some get pretty creative—as in this story about a Cooper’s Hawk that took shelter in a taxicab!

Field Sparrow_Seneca-SC_LAH_1110Others are overwhelmed, with the result that the winds blow them far from home. Research after Hurricane Sandy revealed that “some land birds that were migrating through Florida … may have gotten swept up and then deposited back up in Newfoundland and Maine.” That’s got to be hard on the birds, but it’s a boon for birders. The period after a major storm is an ideal time to go birding, with a strong likelihood of finding a rarity.

Carolina Wren_Seneca-SC_LAH_1211Once the storm has passed, high winds may have decimated the food supply, stripping seeds and fruit off plants, scouring wetlands, covering leaf litter, and drowning any insects that haven’t been blown away. Water sources may be contaminated with seawater, mud, or spilled sewage. We can help the survivors by providing clean water and offering a variety of foods, such as seeds, berries, suet, and live or freeze-dried insects. Not only do the birds need to recover from their ordeal, but many are preparing to migrate, when they’ll be depending on their fat stores for fuel.

It’s also important to protect coastal habitat, so that exhausted birds have a place to stop, rest, and refuel. Coastal islands, such as those off the southeastern coast and along the gulf, also help protect inland areas from devastating storm surges.

Even for those of us who live far from the coast, offering a bird-friendly habitat is helps increase the survival rate. Many of these migrants spend the summer months in our yards. We can help by sending them on their way as strong and healthy birds, prepared for whatever hazards they’ll encounter in the weeks ahead.

Last week’s quiz bird is a Wood Duck.

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