Why Do Waterbirds Land In Parking Lots?

To some bird species, car lots mimic water bodies, leading to avian strandings. 

This story comes to you through a partnership between Audubon and BirdNote, a show that airs daily on public radio stations nationwide.


One damp evening, you pull into a parking lot and there, on the asphalt, sits a pied-billed grebe, a waterbird that you'd normally see on a lake or pond. The grebe struggles and flaps, but cannot fly. About the same time, on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, a resident out for a walk finds a Newell's shearwater—another waterbird—stranded on a tennis court.

What's going on here? Well, seabirds like grebes and shearwaters cannot take flight from land. It has to do with their center of gravity and weight. Their feet are set far back on their bodies, and they have long wings. So they must first patter and splash across the surface of the water to build up enough speed to become airborne.

And what is the attraction of a parking lot or tennis court? Well, to a bird flying at night, they resemble bodies of water, especially if their surfaces are wet. Even more so if made to glisten by artificial light. Young birds on their first flights are especially prone to these mistakes.

Stranded seabirds will not survive without a helping hand. To find out how to reach your local bird rescue group, start at BirdNote.org.

Written by Bob Sundstrom
Pied-billed grebe song provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Recorded by G.A. Keller.
Ambient recordings by Kessler Productions
Producer: John Kessler
Executive Producer: Chris Peterson
© 2012 Tune In to Nature.org     September 2012     Narrator: Mary McCann



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