To birds, storm survival is only natural

Natalie Angier / New York Times News Service /


Published Nov 13, 2012 at 04:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy and the spiteful me-too nor’easter, 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 own it?

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,” 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 become more common as the planet heats up, 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.”

The avian barometer

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, 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 perching seriously.

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.

The open ocean

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.

Hurricane Sandy did not disappoint them. As an enormous hybrid of winter and tropical storm fronts with a huge reach, it pulled in a far more diverse group of birds than the average hurricane, and websites like ebird.org and birdcast.info were alive with thrilled reports of exceptional sightings — of the European shorebird called the northern lapwing showing up in Massachusetts; of Eastern wood-pewees that should have been in Central and South America suddenly appearing again in New York and Ontario; of trindade petrels, which normally spend their lives over the open ocean off Brazil, popping up in western Pennsylvania; and of flocks of Leach’s storm-petrels and pomarine jaegers, arctic relatives of gulls, making unheard-of tours far inland and through Manhattan.

(At least a couple of these visitors fell prey to New York City’s resident peregrine falcons, which either mistook the seabirds for pigeons or were in the mood to try a new ethnic cuisine.)

Most of the visitors didn’t linger, and once the storm had passed they took off, presumably heading back to where they wanted to be.

“Birds have tremendous situational awareness,” said Bryan Watts, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. “They know where they are and where they’re going, they’re able to fly back repeatedly, and they’ve shown an amazing ability to compensate for being pushed off track.”

Tracking migrations

Researchers have begun tagging birds with GPS devices and tracking them by satellite to gain detailed insights into how they accomplish their migratory marathons and what they do when confronting a storm.

In preparation for a possible offshore wind development project, Caleb Spiegel, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and his colleagues at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management have attached transmitters to the tail feathers of several types of migratory birds, including the northern gannet, a big waterfowl with a spectacular fishing style of falling straight down from the sky like a missile dropped from a plane.

As it happened, one of the gannets was approaching the southern shore of New Jersey at just the moment Hurricane Sandy made landfall there, and Spiegel could catch the bird’s honker of a reaction. Making a sharp U-turn, it headed back north toward Long Island and then cut out to sea along the continental shelf, where it waited out the storm while refueling with a few dive-bombs for fish.

“The bird has since returned to New Jersey,” Spiegel said. “It’s pretty much back where it started.”