Photograph courtesy of Melanie Driscoll
Post-hurricane, birds don’t declare disaster areas, request FEMA housing, or have to wait for mass transit to be restored. But, like our human communities—Staten Island, Hoboken, New Orleans, and many others in recent decades—bird habitats can be destroyed or altered in ways that make them unrecognizable to our feathered friends. Here’s what can happen to birds and their natural environment during the course of a storm, what you might encounter, and ways to help out (but remember to put your safety first).
Hurricanes and other storms both create and destroy habitat, and for birds, each storm results in winners and losers. Remaining habitat is often transformed. Storms strip leaves from trees, reducing the protection from weather and predators that birds use when they roost at night. Heavy rain and wind knock down dead trees, too, reducing the cavities that many woodpeckers call home. Storms can also kill some trees, but leave them standing. These freshly dead trees are often subject to insect outbreaks and provide good foraging for woodpeckers, and they’ll become the next generation of cavity trees. Some trees are uprooted, and others are “topped” so that a portion of the trunk remains. When trees are knocked down or partially destroyed, more sunlight reaches the ground, and brushy growth is usually more abundant for the next several years, benefitting birds that depend on shrubby habitats such as golden-winged or Swainson’s warblers.
Coastal habitat may be eroded away completely by storm surge, waves, and punishing winds, but sand may also be deposited in new areas, creating new beach habitat. Storm surge can kill or strip bare vegetation, reducing available habitat for some birds such as reddish egrets. However beaches stripped of vegetation are “cleaner” and thus better for some birds, such as least terns and black skimmers. Storms also create “overwash fans,” which are favored foraging habitat for species like the endangered piping plover. Coastal habitats naturally “migrate” in response to storms, river flooding, and other events. It is important in our coastal planning to allow for shifts in habitat by not building too intensively in coastal areas so that habitats and their dependent wildlife and people can shift in response to natural patterns. Such flexibility is increasingly important in this time of sea level rise and climate change, which threatens increasing storm intensity and frequency.
Hurricanes change habitat quality in many ways. When hurricanes damage structures or facilities used to produce energy or other products, beaches, inland areas, and coastal waters may be fouled with pollutants. Hurricane Isaac washed up and uncovered mats of tar from the Deepwater Horizon disaster along parts of the Gulf coast. Birds may eat or become entangled in plastic and other trash blown and washed into habitats. However wrack deposited by storms provides food and shelter for coastal birds and traps sand and provides nutrients, allowing vegetation to establish on dunes.
What you can do…
Before the storm
Birds may feed either normally or intensively in the time leading up to a significant storm. Stock up on extra birdseed, suet, citrus fruit, and sugar, and put feeders out in the days before a storm arrives. Bring them in before the storm intensifies, as feeders can become projectiles in hurricane-force winds. Prepare extra hummingbird food if you have a place to keep it cool. Look up contact information for wildlife rehabilitators in case you find and safely rescue injured wildlife after the storm.
During the storm
Some birds hunker down and try to ride a storm out; some are displaced, which may put them into coastal areas; and some are entrained (caught within a storm system) and carried further inland. Birds seeking shelter from strong wind and rain may cling to tree branches, take refuge in cavities, or seek refuge on porches, under eaves, under vehicles, or even in human-built structures. It will help birds (and your own animals) if you keep pets indoors during storms so that they don’t pose an additional stress to birds.
Birds may also get blown to places that are unsafe and be unable to fly away. Many brown pelicans, herons, and egrets were stranded on bridges and roadways during Hurricane Isaac, and passing cars killed a number of them. If you must drive during a storm, go slowly and be aware of not only birds but also of debris and other hazards in the road. You’ll protect not only yourself, but also many species of wildlife.
During nesting season, particularly on the coast, nests, eggs, and chicks may be overwashed by waves or storm surge. Even mild storms often result in nest failure for individuals or complete failure of nesting colonies. Early in the season, some birds may re-nest, though many do not. You might also see nests blow down, notice birds flying around, or otherwise witness birds that seem distressed. During a storm is not a good time to help. Birds will deal with weather the best they can, and some will survive, while others may be injured or killed. You should stay safe and only help after a storm has passed, if you’re able.
After the storm
As soon as winds have died down and it’s safe to venture out, put hummingbird and seed feeders back in their normal locations and set out citrus and suet. Storm winds will strip nectar from flowers and may tear flowers, berries, and seeds from plants. Nuts and seeds may be briefly abundant on the ground after a storm, but food generally may be scarce for months following a major hurricane. It may help birds to continue to supply food for up to several months following a storm.
During nesting season, if you find a nest has blown down but is intact, see if you can put it, along with any nestlings, back as they were, and the parents may return to feed the young. If you are sure the adults are not coming back or if you encounter an injured bird, contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator in your area to ask how to help. Remember that, no matter how good your intentions, birds think humans are a threat. Unless proper technique is used, an injured bird may die from stress or injure a person attempting to rescue it.
Many birders use windy weather events to find birds they do not normally see in their area. So-called “storm-birding” can be a great way to see rarities, sometimes called storm waifs. If you decide to look for storm waifs, remember that these birds may be stressed, disoriented, far from their normal food sources, or perhaps unable to find any food at all. If you go storm-birding, enjoy the rarities but be certain not to get too close to stranded birds. (For your safety, heed all weather warnings and watches and obey all laws and warnings regarding restrictions to site access.) Any change in a bird’s behavior may be an indication of increased stress, so back off until the behavior returns to normal. Signs of high stress may include looking more alert; changing from feeding, resting, or preening to moving away from you; or attempting to fly away. Report any bird sightings to e-bird, to help scientists study more about how tropical storms affect populations of birds.
Also, be aware that you may see injured or dead birds, especially if you visit coastal areas after a storm. While this is a natural part of the storm cycle, it can be very upsetting. Know your own tolerance for seeing the havoc that natural events may cause.
On the other hand, both adults and children alike who have experienced a natural disaster might find it healing to go out into nature. Those who have seen wildlife struggle during a storm may also notice how quickly it begins to rebounds, returning to normal patterns, seeking new shelter, looking for food, and, in the case of birds, flying, preening, and singing. As animals’ struggles and losses may remind us of our own struggles and losses, their resilience can also inspire us on our path to recovery.
Click here for more hurricane coverage from Audubon magazine.