Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Can Birds Predict Bad Weather?

I don't need to read the weather forecast to know if a storm is coming or not.  I just look to see who is gossiping around the bird feeder.


If it's just the usual suspects - the Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos, Goldfinches, and other small birds - I know we're good.  But when all the big guys and loners start showing up....

Hairy Woodpecker and Goldfinches
I know there's a storm brewing!

American Goldfinches
But how do birds know a storm is moving in?  Scientists have long thought that birds sense barometric pressure, and in 2013 Western University's Advanced Facility for Avian Research (AFAR) proved it by putting White-throated Sparrows in a hypobaric avian wind tunnel.  (Wind tunnel for birds?  I'm impressed!)  When scientists simulated an oncoming storm by dropping the air pressure before dawn, the birds would immediately start eating at first light instead of doing their normal morning preening.


But while birds being able to sense air pressure is really not a surprise, researchers suspect that birds may have another way of foretelling when bad storms are coming...

A couple of years ago researchers were testing whether or not the small Golden-winged Warbler could carry geolocators on their backs.  It turns out they could - and they provided some unexpected but extremely interesting data.

In April 2014, the Golden-winged Warblers had just flown from South America to their breeding grounds in the Tennessee mountains when an incredibly massive storm started brewing across the US, one that ending up spawning 84 tornadoes and killing 35 people.  Two days before the giant storm reached Tennessee - and while it was still over 500 miles (900 km) away - the birds turned around and fled 1,000 miles back down south to the Gulf of Florida and Cuba to wait out the storm before flying back up north.

Dark-eyed Junco
Realizing a giant storm was coming when it was still hundreds of miles away?  That's some impressive forecasting!  But researchers realized that the Warblers left even before there was any change in barometric pressure, wind speed, or anything else in Tennessee that would normally cause them to flee that early.  So how did the birds know a storm was coming so far ahead of time?

Eastern Bluebird
Scientists think that the birds must have been able to hear infrasound waves from the approaching storm.  Infrasound, sound where the wave frequency is so low that humans can't detect it, can carry over large distances, and this deep rumble made by far-off tornadoes might have tipped off the birds that something big was coming.

Northern Cardinal
Birds predicting oncoming storms by air pressure changes and infrasound make sense.
How about birds predicting earthquakes?

Downy Woodpecker
There have long been anecdotes about animals fleeing an area before an earthquake happens. There is now a hypothesis that some migrating birds could predict earthquakes because of their ability to detect shifts in magnetic fields.  Before an earthquake strikes, stressed rocks give off clouds of positive electric charge, which generate a magnetic field at the Earth's surface.  Do birds detect this, and could a change in migration patterns predict an earthquake?  Scientists with the ICARUS Initiative (short for International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space) are hoping to find out.  They have started tracking migrating patterns of birds and bats by tagging them with ultralight, solar-powered transmitters, and disaster prediction is one of the things they are studying.  It will be interesting to see what they find.

Northern Flicker
Who knows?  Maybe someday instead of watching the Weather Channel for forecasts of impending doom, everyone will just watch the birds.

23 comments:

  1. Good post, Indie. I knew birds could predict storms, but learned quite a bit in your post. They really are amazing creatures. Hearing a storm like that is amazing to me.

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    1. It's amazing how much we still don't know about birds and other animals. Scientists are not quite sure exactly how a bird senses air pressure either. So much to learn still!

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  2. Excellent photos, Indie, and a great post! I have noticed more activity at the feeders just before a storm. It's further complicated by predators in the area. For example, I didn't seen any birds at the feeders yesterday or this morning, even though the barometric pressure was most certainly changing and storms were coming. Couldn't figure it out. "Where are the birds," I thought. Then, this afternoon, a Red-Tailed Hawk flew off the roof and onto a branch scouting out the backyard. I had my answer. Excellent post! Wildlife behavior is fascinating!

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    1. That would certainly explain it! The birds know what's up! That would be fun to watch the hawk, too, even though it scares away the other birds.

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  3. Great post! I have noticed the increased activity at feeders before bad weather but I had no idea they could do all that and more! Humans don't give animals enough credit for their know how. We really can learn so much from nature!

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    1. There's a popular kids show that my daughters watch called Wild Kratts that is all about animals and how the things they can do are like their 'superpowers'. It really is amazing what birds and other animals can do!

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  4. Fascinating stuff.
    The birds will be better weather forecasters than the human ones, without a doubt.

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    1. Ha, they are definitely better than a lot of our local forecasters, that's for sure!

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  5. some extra motivation to protect migrating birds!

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    1. Definitely! Who knows what information they could provide us? They are watching bats as well to see if they can sense earthquakes and other disasters. Most people don't think too much about protecting bats, but I know bats populations are having a lot of trouble between disease and other factors.

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  6. If only they could talk ... we would learn so much!

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  7. The capabilities of birds are amazing. Not only are they beautiful and create lovely music, they can do all sorts of things that humans can't, even with technology.

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    1. So true that even with our superior brain, animals know things we don't!

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  8. INDIE, Fantastic post.
    I love to watch the birds.
    U you are different birds and everyone is very beautiful.
    Greetings.

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    1. Thank you! I enjoy watching the birds so much too, especially in the winter.

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  9. Very interesting! My feeders were packed with birds of all types before Snowzilla hit. We're supposed to a get a bit of snow tomorrow night and Tuesday so it will be interesting to see who shows up at the feeders!

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    1. We had a huge storm the other day, and I saw four bluebirds at the feeder at once. Since they usually visit the feeder one at a time, I had thought there were only two in the area! The storm really brought everyone out to the feeder.

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  10. How fascinating! I was amazed at the birds who fled the storm while it was still hundreds of miles away. There is so much we don't know about the natural world. I hope we find out what the researchers learn from their research.

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    1. The results will be so interesting! I am really fascinated with the ICARUS Initiative, which is using satellites and the International Space Station to collect all the GPS data from the transmitters on the migrating birds and bats. What a great idea!

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  11. Fascinating. We have always believed that nature can tell us the weather.

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    1. We just need to listen and figure out its language. :)

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  12. I think so. Their sensing power is too good,I guess. but we people really need weather gadgets to be aware of forthcoming bad weather.USA instrument to measure wind speed

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