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How do hurricanes affect migrating birds?

Large storm systems, like 2014's Hurricane Arthur pictures here, may drive some birds far off-course.
Large storm systems, like 2014’s Hurricane Arthur pictured here, may drive some birds far off-course.

Each year, migratory birds cross the Gulf of Mexico during hurricane season. Most birds wait for favorable winds and weather before starting a migratory flight, so seldom strike out over water during a hurricane, but some birds may be well offshore when a storm begins. Although migrants have enough fat (fuel reserves) to make the 600-mile Gulf crossing in favorable winds, they may not have enough energy to survive if they have to fight against headwinds.

Before and after flights, when migrants have higher than normal food requirements, they may have problems finding safe supplies of food in areas devastated by storms. Resident birds in hurricane areas also suffer when their food supplies, such as fruits and berries, are stripped from trees and shrubs. Like migrants, they may wander to other areas in search of food. Preserving critical coastal habitats is essential for these birds. It’s also crucial for them that we enforce strict regulations to prevent hazardous materials from leaking or spilling during storms and floods.

Large storm systems may drive some birds far off-course. Strong-flying birds often move ahead of the storm, carried by the winds at the forefront of the weather system. Brown Pelicans, Magnificent Frigatebirds, and other oceanic birds have been recorded far inland, sometimes more than a thousand miles from the coast, after hurricanes. Some of these birds may find their way back; others, unable to deal with the unfamiliar terrain or to find appropriate food in freshwater, may die.

Can I do anything to help the birds?

Birds and hurricanes have coexisted for millennia, and given the chance, healthy bird populations rebound from the effects of such natural disasters. Unfortunately, humans make this difficult for some birds because humans have destroyed so much natural coastal habitat, and so nowadays hurricanes pose greater threats to vulnerable bird populations than they once did. Working to preserve and restore as much coastal habitat as possible, to minimize toxic spills and leaks during storms by enacting and enforcing strict regulations, and to keep bird populations healthy year round are best strategies for minimizing the long-term effects of hurricanes on birds. Providing food and water for birds after hurricanes can also help birds that lost food resources in a storm, or that may need a little extra fuel to continue their migration. If you find a bird in trouble, contact a local wildlife rehabilitator for help.

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library