When a powerful storm like a hurricane spins toward the Atlantic or Gulf coasts, the first thought is dedicated to the people whose lives and homes are at risk. But when the storm passes, nature lovers can’t help but wonder: What happens to birds during the storm?
Riding out the storm
Thanks to modern science, humans know when a tropical storm or hurricane is approaching. But birds have no such early warning system. Some scientists think they might be able to detect the low-pitched rumbling of a distant hurricane—a sound that is too low for humans to hear—but there’s no proof so far. Birds probably notice the storm first as winds gradually increase over a matter of hours, bringing along scattered rain showers. Since wild birds live through storms all the time, they may not be bothered at first.
As winds increase, of course, all creatures take notice. Some large birds may fly away ahead of the storm, especially if they don’t have nests with eggs or dependent young, but most species stay put and seek shelter. Woodpeckers may cling to the downwind side of a sturdy tree trunk or hide inside a hole. Cardinals, buntings and other songbirds find a spot deep in dense thickets, protected from the gales. Backyard birds take cover under sheds or on the lee side of houses, waiting for the worst to be over. Some won’t survive, unfortunately, but surprising numbers emerge unharmed after the storm passes. This is what hurricane categories really mean.
Especially near the coast, a storm surge of rising waters may drive marsh birds up and out of their habitat. Seaside sparrows, rails, and others are at great risk after they’re flooded out of the marshes. Birds that nest on beaches and barrier islands, like terns, plovers, and black skimmers, are especially vulnerable to hurricanes early in the season. By late summer their young will be flying strongly enough to escape, but if a storm makes landfall before midsummer, many nests, eggs, and young birds will be washed away.
Destruction of habitat does affect local wildlife long after a storm passes. When a major hurricane thunders through, forests and marshes may take years to recover. But the results aren’t always all bad. Sometimes a storm that knocks out a few trees will open up a forest and make it more diverse, allowing for more variety of birdlife.
Migrants over open water
An autumn hurricane impacts many birds long before it reaches land. Any time after mid-August, large numbers of migratory birds are moving south over open water—across the Gulf of Mexico, or over the Atlantic as they head for the Caribbean or South America. When these birds get caught in the outer winds of a hurricane, they fly downwind until they end up in the calm eye at the storm’s center.
Surrounded by a circular wall of battering winds, the tiny migrants keep flying within the eye as the hurricane moves west or north. After the storm comes ashore, they land and seek shelter, hiding while the outer winds of the hurricane lash over them. After the storm moves on, coastal areas may be carpeted with thousands of warblers, thrushes and other migrants that have been carried back to shore. They will have to rest, feed and build their strength before they continue their migration.
Seabirds in the eye
As a hurricane marches across the ocean, seabirds also concentrate in the eye of the storm. They get there the same way migrating land birds do: by flying downwind, in the increasing gales that spiral in toward the storm center, until they break out into the calmness of the eye. Then, rather than fight the winds, they stay within the eye as the storm moves.
If a hurricane travels inland, it may bring along some birds of the open ocean—such as shearwaters, tropicbirds, frigatebirds or sooty terns—eventually leaving them deep in the interior of the continent after the storm dissipates. So although bird watchers never hope for destructive storms, we pay attention when tropical systems come ashore, knowing they might bring some surprising birds to our local ponds.
How to help birds after a storm
- Fill feeders with high-quality food such as suet cakes or sunflower seed.
- Offer water in a birdbath or other clean vessel.
- Check to see whether licensed wildlife rehabilitators are operating after the storm. If you find an injured bird after the worst weather passes, the rehab center may care for it, but keep in mind the center may be overwhelmed with other wildlife. If that’s the case, ask if they need donations or help.
- Volunteer to help restore habitat, like coastal beaches.
To make sure that you’re prepared for the next hurricane, learn about the 11 things you need to do to prep your home for the next storm.