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Birds are amazing creatures for a variety of reasons; some are pollinators, they also provide biodiversity in the ecosystem, and many spread seeds. But did you know that our feathered friends also come in handy when it comes to predicting changes in the weather?
Science of How Birds Sense Changes in the Environment
Birds are able to sense changes in the environment because of certain abilities that humans simply don’t possess, such as the ability to hear infrasound and the presence of an internal barometer. As a result of these things, birds begin displaying behaviors that allow us to also pick up on these subtle changes.
As I mentioned, birds are able to hear infrasound. Infrasound is a type of soundwave that’s often produced by weather events such as tornadoes. They’re even produced by other things in nature like erupting volcanoes and ocean waves. To humans, these sounds are generally inaudible, although they can be heard if the levels are high enough. But for birds, this is part of their normal hearing range.
Infrasound waves are low frequency and can travel over very long distances. In pioneering studies that took place outside the lab, scientists from UC Berkeley have gathered evidence to suggest that birds may use infrasound to detect and avoid storms. The research was conducted on a group of golden-winged warblers which were seen to move between their feeding and breeding grounds up to two days prior to a powerful storm.
Not only this but it’s been demonstrated that birds may also alter the way that they fly in order to avoid extreme weather. For example, according to one piece of research, birds were seen to be flying at much lower altitudes to avoid certain conditions.
Another way that birds are able to detect changes in the environment is thanks to the paratympanic organ, located in the middle ear which is thought to act as some sort of natural barometer, allowing them to sense changes in pressure. Not only this but scientists also think that this ability allows them to detect when a change in temperature is coming.
Weather Predicting Bird Species
There has been a degree of research into the abilities of birds and how they can sense changes in weather conditions. Some species are particularly gifted.
The bar-tailed godwit is a migratory wading bird found all over the northern hemisphere during summer. In winter, these birds make some of the longest migrations to their nesting grounds in Australia and New Zealand, after having traveled all the way from Alaska!
What has fascinated scientists is how these birds can make this extreme journey without flying directly into storms. As a result of this, French teams are currently tagging individuals to note their flight paths by sending the signals up to the International Space Station.
In other studies, it’s been determined that bar-tailed godwits are seemingly able to time their flight to perfection and scientists have stated that all birds took off with favorable winds. (source) Moreover, it’s thought that these birds will alter their altitude, depending on the conditions, giving them an easier flight and a greater chance of survival.
The swallow is a fascinating bird for a lot of reasons; their impressive flight speeds and the fact that they can sleep whilst airborne! But beyond that, swallows are another species hailed for their ability to predict bad weather and therefore avoid it.
It’s long been said that when swallows fly low, it’s a sign of rain. While this behavior is seen during rainy periods, that isn’t the swallow predicting anything. Rather it’s because their insect prey becomes more vulnerable when it’s wet, so we see the birds flying closer to the ground to make the most of the feast.
That said, it has been proven that swallows will also move closer to the ground during flight when the pressure drops. This is thanks to their internal barometer and, when the pressure drops, they make the most of the denser air at ground level.
The white-throated sparrow is a migratory bird that’s typically found in Canada, but that spends the winter along the eastern coasts of the United States and as far south as Mexico.
These birds are amazing in that they are able to increase their body fat in response to changes in the weather. In studies, where the birds were exposed to windy conditions in the lab, their fat levels immediately increased.
It’s thought that the white-throated sparrow is able to detect changes in temperature as well as those in barometric pressure.
The golden-winged warbler has been the subject of research on birds’ abilities to detect changes in the weather, and this is the first study of its kind.
These are small songbirds found in North America that have shown amazing predictive abilities, resulting in many individuals of the species avoiding a storm that was so powerful, it killed several humans.
At the back end of 2014, a raging storm, producing as many as 84 tornadoes swept across Tennessee. However, two days before the storm hit, swathes of golden-winged warblers fled the area in search of more favorable conditions in Cuba. It’s believed that the birds were able to pick up on infrasound, undetectable to humans, long before the storm hit, allowing them to get to safety.
The veery is a bird well known for its ability to predict hurricanes. In fact, there’s a ton of literature on the subject and it makes for a very fascinating read.
This species of thrush is found in North America but migrates to South America during the winter. It would appear that their abilities are so spot on that they have been able to predict hurricanes and the severity of hurricane season more accurately than humans or computers.
Once they detect an incoming hurricane, veeries will cut their breeding season short, and in years where the Atlantic hurricane season is worse than average, we note that these birds stop breeding earlier in the year.
The albatross is a large seabird that doesn’t necessarily migrate, but those in the southern hemisphere will sometimes take a circumpolar trip. Moreover, all albatrosses tend to disperse widely once they have finished breeding.
There is a suggestion that the albatross is able to respond to barometric changes in the environment and may alter its flight path or location up to 24 hours before the onset of foul weather. In studies of the Southern Buller’s albatross, it was noted that, when the pressure was low, the birds would fly north-west. On the other hand, they’d moved north-east during periods of high pressure.
Seagulls are incredibly common and are found all over the world, including Antarctica. While they’re generally found around the coasts, as their name would suggest, these birds will sometimes move inland.
There is a very simple reason for this; it helps them to avoid being caught in a nasty storm and find shelter. They’re able to predict when this is going to happen thanks to their internal barometer that allows them to sense subtle changes in pressure.
Seagulls often gather in large flocks, and you’re likely to see them flying in tight flocks just before a storm, as this helps them regain their sense of direction and balance.
Where Do Birds Go When There is a Hurricane?
Staying out of extreme storms is crucial for all creatures, especially birds that wouldn’t stand much of a chance in a hurricane. But the question on everyone’s lips is where do all the birds go during a hurricane?
While it has been pretty difficult to assess the behavior of birds during a storm in the past, modern GPS technology is now making it much easier. For example, during storm Irma, scientists were able to attach GPS tracking devices to 18 pelicans to keep an eye on where they went during the storm.
The results of this study showed that the birds were taking shelter around estuaries during periods of low pressure and high winds. Some individuals were hiding out in overpasses and behind barrier islands. The technique of sheltering like this did mean that the birds had to sacrifice their foraging efforts, but since only 1 of the subjects was suspected of not surviving, it seems an effective tactic.
Sadly, however, there are many instances in which migratory birds are swept into the storm and end up in areas far outside their range. This typically happens when the hurricane moves in over the ocean, and the birds are caught in the outer winds before being taken into the eye of the storm. Then again, another study, in Japan, showed that some birds would purposefully fly into the storm as a way of surviving as this would allow them to drift as opposed to being pushed inland.
Where Do Birds Go When it Rains?
When it rains, it’s not as common to see birds flying overhead. Many people think this is to do with the rain itself, but there’s more reason to believe that it has to do with the air. You see, birds have an oily covering on their feathers that makes them pretty much waterproof. When they fly, they require slightly denser air which gives them the lift they need to stay aloft.
However, when it rains, the air pressure drops meaning the air isn’t as dense which makes it much more of a challenge to fly. While it would be possible for birds to fly in these conditions, it would mean expending a lot more energy which is why you’ll usually see them taking shelter under the cover of trees.
But it really depends on where the birds are as to where they’ll take shelter. Small songbirds and the like will favor tree cover but where this isn’t available, you might find birds hiding out in your porch or your garden shed.
That said, this really only applies to very heavy rain since, in light rain conditions, our feathered friends need to continue foraging. That’s where their oily coating comes in handy to keep them dry and by preening, they can produce more of this for their very own natural waterproof jacket!