Birds in Hurricanes – Effects come close to home

In Birds by couchiching

Let’s hope hurricane season is behind us for this year.  It has been an appalling one for millions of people living in Florida, the Caribbean and U.S. along the Gulf of Mexico.  For those who live in that region, the impact of those dreadful storms will last for a very long time- for those who lost loved ones, a lifetime.

Those hurricanes hit close to home for our family, as we have a niece and her family along the Gulf Coast of Texas, and a nephew and his family in Antigua.  After waiting for three days in both instances to hear from them, we finally learned both families made it through relatively unscathed, although my nephew had severe damage to his seaside home.

It wasn’t just the status of our relatives and residents of the entire region which made us anxious.  We were also concerned about the birds.

Over three hundred species of birds migrate from North America to the southern U.S., the Caribbean and Central and South America every fall- up to ten billion individuals. Many of “our birds” were well into migration when the hurricanes hit their migration routes.  What do they do?

Birds have the ability to sense changes in the barometric pressure and a  pending storm.  They therefore may delay migration until it has passed, or perhaps change their course to avoid it.

Others will hunker down, searching out low branches in trees or shrubs.  When perching birds locate a perch, their leg and feet muscles relax, which in turn tightens and locks their grip.  This enables them, while sitting low, to avoid being blown away.

Cavity nesting and roosting birds, such as woodpeckers, will search out tree cavities and hopefully ride out the storm, that is unless the tree is blown down.

Still other birds fly directly into the storm.  Obviously many die as a result, but amazingly, others make it through.

“Many of “our birds” were well into migration when the hurricanes hit their migration routes.”

Many birds get caught up in the eye of the hurricane.  As there is no turbulence in the eye, they can weather the storm.  When the wind dies down, they may however find that they have  been  blown off course by hundreds or even thousands of kilometers, far  away from their indented destination.  During television coverage of Hurricane Irma, a CNN weather presenter showed a radar image of a mass of birds, remarkably  flying in the eye of the storm.

If birds do reach their destination, it may not be anything like what they expected to be, especially if they were heading for the hurricane ravaged Caribbean.  As with humans, they need a food supply.

In addition to migrating birds, many tropical countries have local and endemic species which could have been decimated. Most of the bird-rich rainforest of Dominica has been completely lost.  Even if birds survived the hurricane, their very existence is now in question.

The bad news is that many hundreds or thousands of birds have died during the hurricanes.   It is still too early to know the full extent of the tragedy.

Our hearts ache for the millions of people, birds and animals who have suffered through these catastrophic events.

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David A. Homer is a volunteer and on the Board of Directors at The Couchiching Conservancy, a non-profit land trust dedicated to protect nature for future generations.