Wild Georgia: Birds have strategies for surviving hurricanes

It’s peak hurricane season — and also prime time for fall bird migration. Millions of Neotropical songbirds and shorebirds that nested in North America during spring and summer are flying south now to Latin America and Caribbean islands for the winter.

For most of them, their migratory routes include a perilous, nonstop crossing of some 500 miles over the Gulf of Mexico to landfall in Mexico, where they disperse as far south as Brazil or Bolivia. Those species include ruby-throated hummingbirds, warblers, thrushes, tanagers, vireos and many other songbirds.

But how do these long-distance travelers cope with ferocious hurricanes, such as Hurricane Ian this week, that could blow them far and wide off track or lead to their deaths?

In essence, birds have developed strategies over eons of time to survive hurricanes and other powerful storms. Although some birds undoubtedly will perish in the storms, the vast majority of them will make it through the fierce events. Some of the migrants may simply leave in advance of an approaching storm. Research has found that birds can detect low-frequency sound waves and changes in barometric pressure that tell them a storm is on the way.

Some migrating birds may intentionally fly into a storm — amazingly employing hurricane winds to their advantage and zipping along at super-fast speeds. Many birds also have the uncanny ability to get back on track if blown off their intended route.

For songbirds that stay put and hunker down during a storm, their talons can grip a branch or wire with amazing strength, allowing them to remain securely perched even during hurricane-strength winds.

Hurricanes, though, may be only one of several dangers facing migrating birds. Lights in tall, city buildings may lure the feathered creatures, which navigate and fly at night, off course and to their deaths when they crash into the buildings. Also, many vital stops where migrating birds rest and refuel during their journeys are being lost to development.

IN THE SKY: From David Dundee, Tellus Science Museum astronomer: The moon will be first quarter on Sunday. Mars rises in the east just after dark. Jupiter is high in the south at sunset. Saturn is in the southwest just after dark and will appear near the moon Tuesday night. Mercury and Venus are not easily seen right now.

Charles Seabrook can be reached at charles.seabrook@yahoo.com.