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How Do Birds Deal With Hurricanes Like Sandy?
Posted on Monday, October 29, 2012 by eNature
Puerto Rican Parrot
Puerto Rican Parrot
© USFWS
Northern Gannet
Northern Gannet
© Alan D. Wilson
Hurricane Erin, Gulf Coast of Florida, 1995
Hurricane Erin, Gulf Coast of Florida, 1995

Hurricane Sandy has, rightfully, dominated the news the past week or so, even pushing the election to the back pages.

While Sandy’s wind, rain and storm surge have certainly affected many people, some folks are also wondering about the effects its had on birds in the places the hurricane passed through.

Numbers are hard to come by, but it’s clear that many birds are killed outright by hurricanes. This is especially true of seabirds, which have nowhere in which to seek shelter from these storms. Beaches may be littered with seabird carcasses following major storm events. Most Atlantic hurricanes occur in late summer and early fall—and fall storms coincide with bird migration and may disrupt migration patterns severely.

Many birds get caught up in storm systems and are blown far off course, often landing in inhospitable places or simply arriving too battered and weakened to survive. Others, while not killed or displaced by storms, may starve to death because they are unable to forage while the weather is poor. The number of birds that die as a result of a major hurricanes may run into the hundreds of thousands.

Healthy bird populations are able to withstand such losses and have done so for eons. However, hurricanes can have severe impacts on endangered species, many of which occur on tropical islands, often among the places hardest hit by hurricanes. For example, Hurricane Hugo in 1989 killed half of the wild Puerto Rican Parrots existing at that time. The Cozumel Thrasher, found only on Mexico’s Isla Cozumel, was pushed to the edge of extinction by Hurricane Gilbert in 1988. Hurricane Iniki may have wiped out the last survivors of as many as three bird species when it hit Hawaii in 1992.

Apart from the direct, physical effects hurricanes may have on birds, they also can have detrimental effects on bird habitats. Cavity-nesting species can be especially hard hit because the trees in which they nest often are blown down or snapped off at the cavity. Hurricane Hugo, which hit the Carolinas in 1989, destroyed most of the area’s nest trees of the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker; one forest lost 87 percent of its nest trees and 67 percent of its woodpeckers. Only through the installation of artificial nest boxes have these populations been restored to pre-storm levels.

Although birds blown out of their normal haunts by storms often don’t survive, bird-watchers by the hundreds may flock to see them. Usually, such sightings involve seabirds blown inland and appearing on lakes and reservoirs. First state records of many species have been obtained in this way. Some birders even head into hurricanes to see lost birds.*  Others raptly study weather maps to try to predict where hurricane-swept birds will wind up.  A few years back, during Isabel, birders were staked out in an organized fashion around New York’s Cayuga Lake to see what showed up. Land birds blown out to sea typically perish unnoticed.

It’s important to remember that the long-term effects of hurricanes on birds aren’t necessarily negative. Every disturbance event is bad for some species but good for others. For instance, hurricanes create gaps in forests, creating habitat for species that require a brushy understory. Birds blown off course occasionally establish entirely new populations; such events may be responsible for much, if not most, colonization of remote islands by birds. Furthermore, hurricanes have been around for a long time and are part of the system in which birds evolved. It is only when they have impacts on species already pushed to the brink by humans, or if hurricane activity is increased by global climate change, that there is cause for concern.


*Epitaph for a hurricane-chasing birder (not original):

Here he lies
A little wet
But he got
His lifelist met.


Have you noticed changes in bird or other animal populations in the wake of hurricanes or other disturbances?

We’re always interested to hearing (or read) your experiences and stories.

Use eNature's Zip Guides to find the animals living in your neighborhood »

Birds use all sorts of techniques to survive winter storms and cold »

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Comments

Prior to SANDY there were Cardinals, Harry Woodpeckers, and all the regular city birds in abundance around our home here in the city of Cambridge MA., but I haven’t seen any for the past two days… hopefully they will start coming back… I even welcome the woodpecker who has decided to peck away at the side of the house !

Posted by Mary Amato on 10/31

I am surprised you did not mention the grassy, brushy near shore habitat that is so critical for birds riding out storms.  It is that habitat that is being destroyed by people who just must have sea shore homes.  Those are also the homes that require subsidized insurance.  It is a messy tangle.

Posted by Chuck Nafziger on 10/31

In NH I had about 200 Siskins irrupt at my feeders driving my local Goldfinches nuts as the Siskins hogged the feeders and were very mean pecking at all the others. Today now that the rain has finally cleared there are NO Siskins, only my Goldfinches, Sparrows and Purple Finches. They are happy at the feeders once again.  Where did all the Siskins go? All the pinecones were blown off all the trees in this neighborhood, so I wonder if they flew to new areas?  My resident Downy woodpecker has taken up residence in one of my birdhouses too. Every night like clockwork she flies in for the night and comes out at dawn. This happened last October when we had 2 ft of snow in a freak storm and trees crashed down all around us. I assume one of them held her cavity so she decided the birdhouse was her best bet to get out of the weather and decided to stay.

Posted by Barb Eaton on 10/31

I was wondering about the migrating birds since some of the news casts on the Weather Channel were from Cape May, a haven for migratory birds and bird watchers. I have heard that the hawks and other large predatory birds pass through on their journey south and north, that you can hear some birds at night on their trek. Has anyone noticed the migration in the past couple days?

Posted by Melitta Smith on 10/31

The importance of human assistance to birds is especially critical during these periods of weather-related stress. My husband and I have made a bird habitat in our yard by planting native shrubs and trees (which supply berries and bugs), clumps of evergreens for shelter and by adding a small bird pond and a bird bath.  We also put up 5 bird houses with raccoon baffles, and several seed and suet feeders.  The number of birds to our yard has increased dramatically.

If your trees have lost branches, make a loose pile in an unused corner of your yard as temporary shelter for the birds.  Everything helps!

Posted by Mary Eliowitz on 10/31

The morning following Hurricane Sandy, my daughter in Boyds, Maryland spotted a half dozen house finches flying out of several carved jack-o’- lanterns on the front porch, including one that flew out of an eye-hole!

Posted by Laurie Black on 10/31

I’m in the highlands area of Northern New Jeraey, where we had 90 mph winds and lots of tree damage from the storm, particularly large old growth pines that are 100-200 ft tall, maybe more. So far I am seeing today the return of nuthatches, downy and Ted bellies woodpeckers , pone Siskin, goldfinch, and some blue jays. I have found a number of what appear to be stunned cardinals. I have several cages which I am using for them to recover - they are eating and drinking , but unable to sustain flight for long. I did not see the usual raptors today- red shouldered hawk , which is a resident and nests here, or vultures and red tails. Grey squirrels also are few in number. The resident opossum is out checking for dropped seed now,

Posted by Cindy on 10/31

When we lived on Long Island in New York, we always saw the seagulls leaving the ocean and flying inland before a bad storm would hit. They’d hunker down somewhere, in yards or parks or even ponds till it was over.

Posted by Renee on 10/31

Late Monday, just as Hurricane Sandy turned toward land, we observed a dozen small song birds clinging to a power line in 50-mile per hour wind gusts. They showed no panic or particular discomfort, only strong grips on the line.  They were safer there than in flight or in a woods where lashing branches could knock them for a loop.

Posted by Hawkeye96 on 10/31

I really do appreciate the time people affected took to comment on how birds reacted to hurricane sandy, and other storms as well. Very informative and interesting, thank you.

Posted by sharlene on 10/31

Thank you to all of the observant birders who have been watching our feathered friends during Hurricane Sandy. We live in an area of southeastern PA who experienced quite a bit of wind, but not too much rain. Many songbirds still around, and a redtail hawk who is a year round resident. Hopefully we did not lose to many of our friends to the nasty, long lasting storm.

Posted by Nancy on 10/31

Normally I don’t put out bird feeders until December when hopefully the bears are hibernating (I live in NE Pa)but several days before Storm Sandy hit, I put out birdseed on the railings on my decks.  Everytime the seed was gone, I put more out.  Then after the storm I continued to do this.  I figured feed them before and then after.  I have been rewarded by seeing all my feathered friends return for more, cardinals, blue jays, doves, darkeyed juncos, titmice, wrens, woodpeckers and my favorites chick-a-dees and of course squirrels and chipmunks.  I even had a flock of turkeys come up on the front lawn.  I’m so happy to see so many of my feathered friends return.

Posted by Marie on 11/1

As a result of Hurricane Sandy, hundreds of BRANT have shown up on Lake Huron and Saginaw Bay, Michigan.  This is a species with only a few scattered records over the years.

Posted by Larry Abraham on 11/1

Being in the thick of Sandy I really appreciated hearing the birds singing after a horrific night. At evening as the storm came ashore I saw seagulls flying unsuccessfully into the gusts. Now in the aftermath am enjoying the singing of white throats and chickadees. They seem content to have it all over now the rest of us have to wait a while longer for same.

Posted by Ken on 11/1

for scott

Posted by Liz on 11/1

I’ve never seen anything odd during tropical systems, though I do remember a storm blowing a crested caracara to massachusetts for a few weeks until the next storm came and blew the poor thing out to sea

Posted by emily on 11/1

I live just south of Boston and discovered that there was a large flock of juncos under my feeders Tuesday after the storm. It is rather early to see these birds but believe that they’ve lost their food source in the woods and have come to my feeders to supplement or replace that in their diet which they’ve lost in the storm.

Posted by Linda G on 11/2

Whenever I took walks in the woods I always wondered about the fact most birds live only 3 to 5 years and there are thousands about us in the suburbs and rural areas. What surprises me is how come seeing a dead bird on the ground is such a rare sight when there must be hundreds that die every year? While you once in a very rare while might see one here or there. You never see a half dozen or so on a several miles hike for example. Though it might sound morbid it just flys in the face of logic.

Posted by John V on 11/4

We live in Western PA which was hit by several days of rain and a few strong wind gusts of Hurricane Sandy.  Prior to the storm we had a wide variety of birds in our backyard in birdhouses and as regular visitors to our bird feeders.  Since then we haven’t seen any.  The seed in the feeder hasn’t been disturbed at all.  Is this normal so far away from the center of the storm?

Posted by Nancy F on 11/4

Hi John V., We used to live in the suburbs, now we live in the wilderness and living here has made me aware of the predators and scavengers around us who clean up carcasses pretty fast. You may not have bears, wolves, mountain lions or bobcats, but do you have foxes, coyotes,raccoons, any type of weasel,fishers, badgers, skunks, crows, seagulls, turkey vultures,rats, even young turtles? We have a chicken coop and periodically a chicken will drop dead for no apparent reason, not to let it go to waste, we carry her body a few yards into the woods and leave it there. Chickens are pretty big compared to a lot of wild birds, and it is always completely gone by the next morning, there are rarely even any feathers left. Maybe this explains your lack of birdie bodies grin

Posted by Renee on 11/4
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