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To Birds, Storm Survival Is Only Natural
AWASH A protected area for plovers in Lido Beach, N.Y., after a 2009 storm.
By NATALIE ANGIER
Published: November 12, 2012
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy and the spiteful me-too northeaster, much of the
East Coast looked so battered and flooded, so strewed with toppled trees and
stripped of dunes and beaches, that many observers feared the worst. Any day
now, surely, the wildlife corpses would start showing up — especially birds,
for who likelier to pay when a sky turns rogue than the ones who act as if they
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Yet biologists studying the hurricane’s aftermath say there is remarkably
little evidence that birds, or any other countable, charismatic fauna for that
matter, have suffered the sort of mass casualties seen in environmental
disasters like the BP oil spill of 2010, when thousands of oil-slicked seabirds
washed ashore, unable to fly, feed or stay warm.
“With an oil spill, the mortality is way more direct and evident,” said Andrew
Farnsworth, a scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “And though it’s
possible that thousands of birds were slammed into the ocean by this storm and
we’ll never know about it, my gut tells me that didn’t happen.”
To the contrary, scientists said, powerful new satellite tracking studies of
birds on the wing — including one that coincided with the height of Hurricane
Sandy’s fury — reveal birds as the supreme masters of extreme weather
management, able to skirt deftly around gale-force winds, correct course after
being blown horribly astray, or even use a hurricane as a kind of slingshot to
propel themselves forward at hyperspeed.
“We must remind ourselves that 40 to 50 percent of birds are migratory, often
traveling thousands of miles a year between their summer and winter grounds,”
said Gary Langham, chief scientist of the National Audubon Society in
Washington. “The only way they can accomplish that is to have amazing abilities
that are far beyond anything we can do.”
Humans may complain about climate change. Birds do something about it.
“Migration, in its most basic sense, is a response to a changing climate,” Dr.
Farnsworth said. “It’s finding some way to deal with a changing regime of
temperature and food availability.” For birds, cyclones, squalls and other
meteorological wild cards have always been a part of the itinerant’s package,
and they have evolved stable strategies for dealing with instability.
Given the likelihood that extreme weather events will only become more common
as the planet heats up, Dr. Farnsworth said, “the fact that birds can respond
to severe storms is to some extent a good sign.” Nevertheless, he added, “how
many times they can do it, and how severe is too severe, are open questions.”
Among a bird’s weather management skills is the power to detect the air
pressure changes that signal a coming storm, and with enough advance notice to
prepare for adversity. Scientists are not certain how this avian barometer
works, yet the evidence of its existence is clear.
As just one example, Dr. Langham cited the behavior of the birds in his
backyard in Washington on the days before Hurricane Sandy arrived. “They were
going crazy, eating food in a driving rain and wind when normally they would
never have been out in that kind of weather,” he said. “They knew a bigger
storm was coming, and they were trying to get food while they could.”
Songbirds and their so-called passerine kin may be notorious lightweights — if
a sparrow were a letter, it could travel on a single stamp — but that doesn’t
mean they’re as helpless as loose feathers in the wind. Passerine means
perching, and the members of this broad taxonomic fraternity all take their
When a storm hits, a passerine bird can alight on the nearest available branch
or wire with talons that will reflexively close upon contact and remain closed
by default, without added expenditure of energy, until the bird chooses to open
them again. If you’ve ever watched a perched bird in a high wind and worried,
“Poor squinting thing — could it be blown away and smashed to bits down the
road?,” the answer is not unless the perch is blown away with it.
Scientists have found that many migratory birds, especially the passerines,
seek to hug the coast and its potential perches as long as possible, leaving
the jump over open water to the last possible moment. But for birds over the
open ocean, hurricanes pose a real challenge, and they can be blown off course
by hundreds of miles. In fact, ornithologists and serious bird-watchers admit
they look forward to big storms that might blow their way exotic species they’d
otherwise never see in their lifetime.
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A version of this article appeared in print on November 13, 2012, on page D1 of
the New York edition with the headline: To Birds, Storm Survival Is Only
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