As Hurricanes Increase in Intensity, How Will Birds Respond?

Hurricanes don't affect all birds in the same way, but a changing climate that makes storms more intense will pose serious threats.

Hurricanes are increasing in intensity as a result of climate change. While hurricanes may become less frequent overall, the most intense storms will actually become more common. This could be devastating for vulnerable, low-lying communities, but many birds and their habitats are also at risk.

Hurricanes and tropical storms can be fatal for staging, migrating, and nesting birds. In 2005, Hurricane Wilma carried thousands of birds – including over 700 Chimney Swifts – as far as Western Europe. The next year, Chimney Swift populations were half of what they were before the storm. In August 1991, Hurricane Bob passed over a major Roseate Tern migratory staging area in Connecticut, and this was linked to a 17% decline in nesting pairs the next year. Sooty Tern mortality in the Atlantic Ocean is higher in years with more frequent and intense hurricanes. Hurricanes can even affect waterbirds nesting far inland: in 2019, Cyclone Fani demolished tern and shorebird nests on a river sandbar in India, over 100km from the ocean.

Hurricanes more commonly affect birds indirectly by damaging the habitats they rely on for nesting, foraging, and roosting. Hurricanes change beach profiles, redistributing sand from dunes to beaches. While critical nesting beaches are lost on some beaches and barrier islands, nesting and foraging habitats are increased in other places by fresh sand deposition. Snowy Plovers prefer early successional habitat, and as a result they nest in areas frequently impacted by hurricanes. As a result, this species will be negatively impacted if hurricane frequency declines, as predicted. Other beach-nesting birds, such as Brown Pelicans and Black Skimmers, declined after the one-two punch of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike washed away nesting habitat on Louisiana’s coasts in 2008.

Forest birds are also threatened by the increasing intensity of hurricanes. Hurricanes wreak havoc on forest structure, creating canopy gaps, removing limbs and vegetation, and stressing the trees that remain standing. Consequently, fruit- and nectar-eating Caribbean birds decline following hurricanes, while insectivores that forage aerially or on standing dead trees increase in abundance. An Audubon scientist found that forest bird communities were harder hit than coastal birds after two hurricanes hit the Louisiana coast in 2020. In the Bahamas, critically endangered West Indian Woodpecker populations initially declined then rebounded within three years of hurricanes. Yet in Mexico, birds that are disturbance-sensitive or require intact forest canopies declined after rare storm damage in a Chiapan cloud forest.

The good news is that many bird populations are highly resilient to hurricanes. While richness and abundance will decline in the months and years following storms, populations recover within 20 years on average. In some cases, populations recover even more quickly – or they are minimally affected in the first place. Understory forest birds in Cozumel returned to pre-storm abundances a year following dual hurricanes in 2005. In the northeastern U.S., nest survival of marsh birds following Hurricane Sandy in 2012 was similar to the rates prior to the storm. Frequently, hurricane damage will displace birds to habitats unaffected by the storm, but if the birds have room to move – and if another hurricane doesn’t hit the region too soon – birds will eventually return. Restoration tactics like beach renourishment can help raise nesting elevation out of the reach of storm surges, protecting beach-nesting birds. By protecting and restoring habitats, we can help ensure that coastal birds weather the storms to come.