Hurricane Disaster Relief for Birds: What to Expect and How to Help

Hurricane Disaster Relief for Birds: What to Expect and How to Help

Melanie Driscoll
Published: 11/09/2012

Photograph courtesy of Melanie Driscoll

Post-hurricane, birds don’t declare disaster areas, request FEMA housing, or have to wait for mass transit to be restored. But, like our human communities—Staten Island, Hoboken, New Orleans, and many others in recent decades—bird habitats can be destroyed or altered in ways that make them unrecognizable to our feathered friends. Here’s what can happen to birds and their natural environment during the course of a storm, what you might encounter, and ways to help out (but remember to put your safety first).


Habitat Changes

Hurricanes and other storms both create and destroy habitat, and for birds, each storm results in winners and losers. Remaining habitat is often transformed. Storms strip leaves from trees, reducing the protection from weather and predators that birds use when they roost at night. Heavy rain and wind knock down dead trees, too, reducing the cavities that many woodpeckers call home. Storms can also kill some trees, but leave them standing. These freshly dead trees are often subject to insect outbreaks and provide good foraging for woodpeckers, and they’ll become the next generation of cavity trees. Some trees are uprooted, and others are “topped” so that a portion of the trunk remains. When trees are knocked down or partially destroyed, more sunlight reaches the ground, and brushy growth is usually more abundant for the next several years, benefitting birds that depend on shrubby habitats such as golden-winged or Swainson’s warblers. 


Coastal habitat may be eroded away completely by storm surge, waves, and punishing winds, but sand may also be deposited in new areas, creating new beach habitat. Storm surge can kill or strip bare vegetation, reducing available habitat for some birds such as reddish egrets. However beaches stripped of vegetation are “cleaner” and thus better for some birds, such as least terns and black skimmers. Storms also create “overwash fans,” which are favored foraging habitat for species like the endangered piping plover. Coastal habitats naturally “migrate” in response to storms, river flooding, and other events. It is important in our coastal planning to allow for shifts in habitat by not building too intensively in coastal areas so that habitats and their dependent wildlife and people can shift in response to natural patterns. Such flexibility is increasingly important in this time of sea level rise and climate change, which threatens increasing storm intensity and frequency. 


Hurricanes change habitat quality in many ways. When hurricanes damage structures or facilities used to produce energy or other products, beaches, inland areas, and coastal waters may be fouled with pollutants. Hurricane Isaac washed up and uncovered mats of tar from the Deepwater Horizon disaster along parts of the Gulf coast. Birds may eat or become entangled in plastic and other trash blown and washed into habitats. However wrack deposited by storms provides food and shelter for coastal birds and traps sand and provides nutrients, allowing vegetation to establish on dunes.


What you can do…

Before the storm 

Birds may feed either normally or intensively in the time leading up to a significant storm. Stock up on extra birdseed, suet, citrus fruit, and sugar, and put feeders out in the days before a storm arrives. Bring them in before the storm intensifies, as feeders can become projectiles in hurricane-force winds.  Prepare extra hummingbird food if you have a place to keep it cool. Look up contact information for wildlife rehabilitators in case you find and safely rescue injured wildlife after the storm.


During the storm 

Some birds hunker down and try to ride a storm out; some are displaced, which may put them into coastal areas; and some are entrained (caught within a storm system) and carried further inland. Birds seeking shelter from strong wind and rain may cling to tree branches, take refuge in cavities, or seek refuge on porches, under eaves, under vehicles, or even in human-built structures. It will help birds (and your own animals) if you keep pets indoors during storms so that they don’t pose an additional stress to birds.


Birds may also get blown to places that are unsafe and be unable to fly away. Many brown pelicans, herons, and egrets were stranded on bridges and roadways during Hurricane Isaac, and passing cars killed a number of them. If you must drive during a storm, go slowly and be aware of not only birds but also of debris and other hazards in the road. You’ll protect not only yourself, but also many species of wildlife.


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