The Caribbean is reeling after back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes roared through the region earlier this month. Irma destroyed or damaged 95 percent of the homes and buildings on Barbuda, slammed Cuba, and continued into Florida, where it wiped out all the endangered Everglade Snail Kite’s active nests at Lake Okeechobee. Then, Maria battered Dominica and pummeled Puerto Rico. Maria, the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico since 1928, knocked out power for the entire island, and getting food, water, and medicine to residents remains an urgent challenge. Some islands were hit by both storms, which caused dozens of deaths.
While not economically wealthy, many of the islands hardest hit by the storms are rich in bird diversity. There are 172 bird species found only in the Caribbean—many limited to a single island—and 56 of them are threatened with extinction, according to the nonprofit conservation group BirdsCaribbean. Inhabiting such a limited range makes these species especially vulnerable to extreme events. “When you have an endemic species living on just one island, one hurricane can wipe them out entirely,” says Andrew Dobson, president of BirdsCaribbean.
There are more questions than answers about how well birds weathered the storms, but Dobson and colleagues were relieved to learn that some of the most concerning species survived. At least a handful of Barbuda Warblers made it through Irma’s storm surge and 185-mile-per-hour winds. BirdsCaribbean reported that its partners with Environment Awareness Group and the Antigua and Barbuda Department of the Environment conducted a September 22 survey of Barbuda, the warbler’s only home, and found eight of the sprightly songbirds. Pre-hurricane estimates put the Barbuda Warbler’s total population somewhere between 1,000 and 2,500, and conservationists will have a better sense of how many remain after BirdsCaribbean and collaborators complete a more in-depth study of the island over the next month. But even the few birds spotted so far were a big source of relief. “It’s incredible that a warbler that just weighs a few ounces can find a place to hunker down and survive,” Dobson says.
Barbuda also is home to the region’s largest colony of Magnificent Frigatebirds, with about 2,500 adult pairs nesting at Codrington Lagoon National Park before Irma. Unfortunately, although some frigatebirds remain, the colony was devastated. “Where there’d normally be thousands of birds covering every bit of mangrove you could put your eyes on, there were only about 20 or 25 birds in the mangroves, and maybe 250 in the air,” says Lisa Sorenson, executive director of BirdsCaribbean. Any young birds still in their nests—the tropical climate allows an extended nesting season—would have perished in the storm. And if Irma had blown a large number of adult frigatebirds to other countries where they don’t normally hang out, BirdsCaribbean would most likely have heard reports of the sightings. They have not. “It does look pretty pessimistic, really,” Dobson says.
For other Caribbean birds, the news is mixed, according to an update from the American Bird Conservancy and reports we’ve received from our BirdLife International partner organization Bahamas National Trust. American Flamingoes fared well in the Bahamas, but thousands of them died in Cuba. “Being such an awkward bird, it’s pretty defenseless against big storms,” Dobson says. Shelters allowed captive Puerto Rican Parrots to pull through, but the state of their wild counterparts is unknown. Maria barreled through the Puerto Rican coastal habitat that is the Yellow-shouldered Blackbird’s only home, and it’s not yet clear if the species—which numbered only in the low hundreds before the hurricanes—survived. Conservationists also don’t know much yet about how the storms affected Black-capped Petrels, Imperial Parrots, West Indian Whistling-Ducks, and many other vulnerable species.
As it turns out, surviving the storms might have been the easy part for some birds. The hurricanes stripped or destroyed much of the vegetation birds rely on for food and shelter from predators. “Getting through these next few weeks with such a limited food supply is going to be difficult,” Dobson says. One of BirdsCarribean’s partners reportedly went through 10 pounds of sugar in two weeks to feed hummingbirds.
The biggest lesson from the storms is the importance of preserving and restoring native habitat, Dobson and Sorenson say—especially mangroves, which not only provide homes for birds, but also soften the impacts of storms on coastal communities and ecosystems. It will take months for a fuller picture of the Caribbean’s bird populations to emerge, but one thing is clear now: There will be more hurricanes, and protecting habitat now will help birds survive the storms to come.