Where do birds go during bad weather?
It seems that the weather is getting more severe everywhere--droughts, floods, storms. You may wonder how birds survive. Where do birds go when the weather is bad?
You may notice less bird activity when it rains. And birds seem to disappear entirely during strong storms and wind. Where do they go? How do they protect themselves?
And what about hurricanes? Blizzards? Hailstorms? Do birds fly away from bad weather or sit it out? How do they find food? Do many birds die during stormy weather?
What can you and I do to help birds during prolonged periods of inclement weather and storms?
Let's find out.
Where do birds go when it rains?
Western Wood-Pewee in the rain
Photo by Greg Gillson
During light rain showers most birds continue their normal activity. Birds are very active and need to eat frequently. In light rain the just keep doing their bird thing. They can do this because their feathers are waterproof. Well, the feathers aren't waterproof in themselves. Birds make their feathers waterproof through the activity of preening.
Birds spend much of their time caring for their feathers. This is called preening. They use their bill to sort through their feathers. They clean off dirt and parasites. They smooth and align all the small interlocking barbules that act like tiny zippers to hold the feathers together neatly. This keeps the feathers well maintained and helps keep water from reaching the skin below.
You may see birds reaching around to their rump with their bill, often with their tail fanned as they stretch around. There is a special preening gland (also called oil gland) at the base of the tail in most bird species. Its exact name is the uropygial gland. Birds wipe a waxy oil from this gland onto their bill and crown and then apply it to the rest of feathers. The preening "oil" makes the plumage shiny and like new. Well-care-for feathers repel water by their fine structure, more so than any properties of the preening oil itself (source).
So during a light rain birds generally stay out, finding food and living their lives. They stay dry with their water-repelling plumage just as you might with a good rain suit. If the rain is too hard, however, or is accompanied by winds, then birds need to seek shelter. We discuss this next.
Where do birds go during a storm?
Seabirds in a storm
Photo by Greg Gillson
The seabirds far offshore in the above photo are strong fliers. Or, rather, they use the strong winds for dynamic soaring. Those Western Gulls, Northern Fulmars, Black-footed Albatrosses, and Sooty Shearwaters in that photo actually seem to enjoy those winds off the West Coast. But what do they do during multiple days of such conditions? Certainly they must get tired out. They can't find food in that choppy water turned to froth.
Those seabirds have no place to hide. They can sit on the ocean and rest. But that water is too rough for that. The gulls often return to shore and even inland during storms, but the other seabirds remain far from land. Often they can glide on the winds in front of the storm and work their way around to the back side, hundreds of miles and perhaps taking days. After strong winter storms it is not unusual to find dead gulls and fulmars on the beaches, often emaciated from lack of food. But rarely does an albatross wash up in similar storms. They are used to flying thousands of miles around the North Pacific in a week.
After hurricanes on the East Coast many birders visit lakes hundreds of miles inland. Why? There they may find seabirds flying around over the lake waters far from their ocean habitats. After a few days many fly back over land to the Atlantic. Seabirds make their way to the calmer eye of the hurricane at sea and are carried along with the storm. At sea there's not much to hit them. Over land it becomes dangerous. Certainly, many seabirds die in hurricanes.
It's another story for small birds on land. Most are not strong fliers. They are in danger of flying into objects such as tree branches and power lines in strong winds. They could also be hit by leaves, twigs, trash or other objects blown by the wind.
I lived most of my life in Oregon. It rains there. A lot. When I was caught out in the woods during a downpour I appreciated hiding under a dense redcedar tree. Hardly any rain reached the ground under such a tree. Each branch of flat needle leaves acted like a roof shingle, causing the rain to drip farther and farther from the trunk.
During storms birds hide in dense trees and bushes. They may be able to find some calmer areas on the leeward side of a woods, protected from some of the winds. Such protected areas may also have insects, also hiding from the wind. Such insects my be right down on the ground behind clumps of dense bushes. Birds may hide there as well, very low to the ground.
In your yard birds may hide in dense bushes, especially behind a fence line or shed. Arborvitae or other thick hedges may protect small birds.
Can birds fly in the rain?
Why do we not see birds flying when it rains? Well, birds can fly in the rain. Larger birds such as ducks, geese, swans, and gulls are frequently noted flying in the rain. During storms, though, it uses more energy to fly. And it becomes harder to find food and refuel. So flying when the weather is stormy is not advantageous. Birds generally find a place to wait out a storm.
During spring migration small land birds frequently migrate north at night during showery weather following a warm front. If they encounter a cold front, with clear skies and a stiff breeze from the north, they will land immediately and stay until the winds turn to their favor again. They don't migrate in heavy rain, unless they get caught by surprise as, for instance, migrating across the Gulf of Mexico from the Yucatan or Caribbean islands.
A couple of reliable references I checked suggest that birds don't fly in rain because of low air pressure (source). Lower air pressure allegedly has a higher energy cost for flying. That would not seem to fit with migratory birds flying north in spring with warm fronts that are definitely low pressure and showery weather. Migratory birds fly at high elevations where air pressure is less than ground level. But birds fly in the mountains where air pressure is much less, too, as my crushed water bottles when I return home attest. I'm just not sure. There's something here that doesn't seem right or I misunderstand. But I provide the reference source for you in case you want to follow up.
Where do birds go when it snows?
Mountain Chickadee in the snow
Photo by Greg Gillson
Cavity nesting birds may also gather together during unusually cold weather in old woodpecker holes and even backyard bird houses. The birds that do this include bluebirds, chickadees, nuthatches, and maybe swallows in early spring that got surprised by a late season cold snap.
Snow by itself is generally not the problem. It is the cold--specifically a prolonged freeze--that can present problems for "half-hardy" birds such as Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Eastern and Western bluebirds, Gray Catbirds, Brown Thrashers, Hermit Thrushes, Anna's Hummingbird, Yellow-rumped Warblers and others--birds that primarily eat insects. During mild winters they can be found farther north. But if the ground (and water) stays frozen for a week, they will starve or dehydrate. You may find these cold, weak, hungry and thirsty birds on the ground under bushes or on road edges or around buildings where there may be some melt.
Seed-eating birds and hawks don't have as much of a problem, though they do need to find liquid water to drink in winter.
The basal portions of most feathers have fluffy down that traps air next to the skin and acts as the original down insulation. Birds can raise their feathers, too. They fluff up in a ball to keep warm. And they often tuck their head under their wing to keep their head warm.
What about those skinny stick legs and long toes stuck out in the cold? Why don't they get frostbite or make the bird cold? Birds have a countercurrent blood exchange in their legs. Arteries and veins are close together in the bird's legs. Warm blood in the arteries going to the feet warms the cool blood in the veins returning to the body. So birds can stand on ice without freezing or getting too cold (source). Amazing!
How can I help the birds in winter?
We've discussed that birds need a place to hide out of the wind during rainstorms, snowstorms, and hailstorms. You may be able to provide this with a nice thick hedge next to a wood fence or against your shed or house. You can also plant dense conifers, such as cedars or spruce. A tangled brush pile can work, if you live in an area where you can have some "wild" or natural landscaping.
Bird houses may provide winter nighttime roosting for chickadees and bluebirds during exceptionally cold weather.
Then in the morning birds will need access to food and fresh water. A bird feeder (tube or hopper types) with a covered roof may work to provide some open food sources during snowy weather. Suet, meal worms, and peanut butter are high-energy foods for winter bird feeding.
A bird bath heater is a device used to keep bird baths from freezing in areas with colder winters. Birds need drinking water in winter. Such open water may be harder to find in dry frozen periods of winter than in summer.
You can hang hummingbird feeders near a porch light with incandescent bulb that may provide enough heat to keep from freezing. Some people keep a second hummingbird feeder indoors, ready to hang on the porch first thing for hummingbirds suffering through a period of freezing weather. Tiny though they are, hummingbirds can handle freezing weather for a day or two.