Be Your Own Birder

How Birds Recover From Hurricanes

As the winds fall, rain tapers off, and flooding recedes, hurricane cleanup and recovery begins. Some areas may return to normal within hours of a storm’s passage, while others will be rebuilding structures, repairing roads, and renovating electrical grids for weeks, months, or even years. The impact of a hurricane is never-ending, from the initial losses and damages to ongoing legal issues with aid recovery, damage claims, and negligence investigations, to the mourning of lost lives and devastated ways of life.

Hurricane Dorian Approaching the Bahamas - Photo by MODIS / Terra satellite data
Hurricane Dorian Approaching the Bahamas – Photo by MODIS / Terra satellite data

But we do rebuild.

Communities come together, relief efforts get underway, and lessons are learned for future preparation. I’ve been personally and directly involved with six different hurricanes – Floyd, Charley, Ivan, Matthew, Irma, and Dorian – that have threatened my home and family, and each one has been a learning experience. With each one, however, we’ve learned, and we persevere, preparing for the next inevitable forecast track and cone of uncertainty. We replace the supplies we’ve used, adjust our future plans, and reassure one another of our strength and love.

But what do birds do?

Birds After a Hurricane

The first few hours and days after a hurricane are the most chaotic for our own storm recovery, as power grids must be restored, roads cleared, and supplies restocked. For birds, however, recovery is much faster and more efficient, and life returns to normal much sooner.

When a home is damaged, immediate repairs must be made, such as tarps on the roof or temporary window coverings. Then come the insurance claims, damage assessments, and appraisals, followed by potentially long waits for approved contractors and limited supplies. It may be months before a home is returned to its pre-storm condition.

When a bird’s home – a roosting tree or shrubbery – is damaged, however, the bird may simply move into the next tree or shrub, or even continue to use the same fallen tree, just in a slightly different position. There is no wait for repairs and no need for paperwork.

If a storm results in extended power loss, human food supplies can be damaged and contaminated, unsafe for consumption without proper refrigeration. A family may lose their entire freezer, and at the same time local grocery stores are unable to restock because their own coolers cannot function. Restaurants will have the same concerns, and hot meals or refrigerated food will all be in short supply.

Yes, a hurricane can damage birds’ food supplies, but in the short term there is no lack of windfall fruits, seeds, and nuts. Insect populations may boom due to excess standing water, and carrion could be abundant if other animals succumbed to the storm. Birds will feast on all those resources in the immediate aftermath, and some of those foods will remain abundant for weeks or months after the hurricane, even as other foods are recovering and new growth begins.

Blocked Trail, Hurricane Irene Damage - Photo by Virginia State Parks
Blocked Trail, Hurricane Irene Damage – Photo by Virginia State Parks

For birders, some of the most apparent effects of a hurricane include closures and damage to favorite trails and refuges. While boardwalks may be damaged, trails washed away, docks destroyed, and even simple paths blocked by fallen trees, these are inconveniences to humans only. Where hikers see a damaged trail, birds see a new brush pile for shelter. Where birders see piles of fallen branches, birds see a new source of nesting materials. Where we see dead trees, birds see a new buffet of insects that will feast on rotting wood, along with the potential for nesting cavities.

Birds Benefiting From Hurricanes

Birds can be even more opportunistic after a hurricane. Flood waters may make fishing easier for herons, egrets, and ospreys, while the winds of the storm might assist migration for warblers, tanagers, hummingbirds, and multitudes of other traveling birds. Changes in coastlines and local habitats may initially be devastating, that’s true, but those changes can also raise awareness about the necessity of natural areas for storm buffers, creating new preserves and habitat restoration in the years to come.

Hurricanes are very serious, dangerous, devastating storms. But we will rebuild, and we will help our neighbors rebuild. The birds will still be there.

Great Blue Heron in Hurricane Irma Debris - Photo by Cammy Clark/Monroe County BOCC
Great Blue Heron in Hurricane Irma Debris – Photo by Cammy Clark/Monroe County BOCC

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