Although the weather has been mild thus far this winter, that can change in the blink of an eye. Inclement weather affects humans, but it can also have adverse affects on birds. Snow, sleet, ice, wind and other forces can play havoc on the lives of our feather friends. Birds have many adaptations to help them deal with the worst the elements can throw at them, but sometimes events can overtake them.
One such event took place on the night of March 13-14, 1904, when hundreds of thousands of one small songbird species perished as circumstances came together in a perfect storm. This infamous event in the annals of ornithology mystified residents living around the town of Worthington, Minnesota, when they awoke on the morning of March 14 to find thousands of dead birds strewn across the landscape. Birds fell onto everything from yards and gardens to street and rooftops, as well as numerous frozen lakes.
In an article in the ornithological publication The Auk, the affected songbird was identified as the Lapland longspur, a bird that nests in the Arctic tundra and spends winters on the expansive prairies and plains of the United States and Canada. The Lapland longspur, also known as the Lapland bunting, also ranges into Russia and the Northern Scandinavian countries of Europe. The term “longspur” refers to the long hind claws on this small songbird’s feet. Two other longspurs — Smith’s longspur and chestnut-collared longspur — are found in North America.
The Lapland longspur disaster on the night of March 13, 1904, originated with a massive migration flight taking these songbirds back to their tundra nesting grounds. The author of the Auk article speculated that the longspurs migrating northward encountered a winter storm in the darkness. Heavy snow accumulated on the feathers of the exhausted migrants, forcing them to crash to the ground by the hundreds of thousands across the terrain of southwestern Minnesota and northwestern Iowa. From the point of view of the disoriented birds, the lights from the towns dotted across the landscape added to the chaos and confusion. Many of the bird suffered blunt force traumas, including ruptured organs, crushed skulls, bone fractures and other such injuries incurred when falling to the ground from great heights.
The Auk article comes to a total of a million birds lost in a single night, although the author admits the toll could have been even higher. Although this is an immense figure, consider that a survey dating to 2004 estimated 8 million Lapland longspurs in Alaska alone during the nesting season.
The 1904 disaster didn’t seem to dent the overall numbers of the Lapland longspur. The populations of many species of birds can survive such catastrophes, but other species already struggling could be adversely affected by such events. For example, in February of 2007 a flock of year-old whooping cranes was exterminated by severe storms that overwhelmed them in a shelter at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. A total of 18 young whooping cranes, part of a flock trained to follow an ultralight aircraft from their birthplace in Wisconsin to the refuge in Florida salt marshes, were killed during the storm. The loss of that many young birds also robs the endangered species of much needed vitality. As of February 2015, the total whooping crane population stood at 603 individuals, including 161 captive birds.
Weather disasters extract a toll on both humans and birds. Sometimes they may affect hundreds of thousands of individuals, although the consequences are often confined to smaller segments of a population.
In early May of 2013, dozens of common loons migrating through Wisconsin encountered an unseasonable ice storm. Many of the birds found ice forming on their feathers, weighting them down and causing emergency landings. Wildlife rehabilitation workers rescued more than 50 birds, but there were probably many other loons affected by the freak storm that were lost without a trace.
Loons crashing onto land or even small ponds are doomed. Agile and graceful in water because of strong legs and webbed feet, loons are almost incapable of movement on land. Landing on a small body of water is not much better since loons must run along a stretch of waters — sometimes for hundreds of yards — in order to get their relatively heavy bodies aloft.
Loons are not the only birds that sometimes face forced landings. In March of this year, a winter storm raged through most of the Northeastern United States. The wakes of these storms resulted in wildlife agencies in the region being flooded with reports of dead or injured American woodcocks in the region. Most of the reports were concentrated in and around New York City. Not only did the storm interrupt the migration flight of the woodcocks, but cold temperatures caused the ground to freeze, preventing the stranded birds from finding food.
The woodcock is an unusual shorebird, also known by such whimsical names as “bog sucker” and “timberdoodle,” that has completely abandoned the shore in favor of woodlands and fields. The American woodcock is not a rare bird, but the species is rarely seen due to its retiring habits and inaccessible habitats.
Closer to home, an unusual February event back in 2014 resulted in equally unusual numbers of red-necked grebes on area lakes, rivers, and ponds. This grebe, a rare visitor to the region, was apparently forced by weather conditions to make a stopover on bodies of water in the region. Reports of red-necked grebes persisted for about a week before they eventually departed to continue their flight to more favored locations.
Back in 2011, it wasn’t a winter storm that killed thousands of birds in Arkansas. The birds — red-winged blackbirds, European starlings, brown-headed cowbirds, and common grackles — shared a communal roost near the town of Beebe.
On New Year’s Eve, just as 2011 was dawning, about 5,000 of these birds died after crashing into trees, buildings and automobiles, according to a National Geographic News article by Charles Q. Choi. Apparently these birds were frightened into flight by the explosive booms from a professional fireworks display celebrating the arrival of a New Year. In the chaos after thousands of birds not suited for nocturnal flight took to the air, they began to impact various stationary objects and crash back to the ground.
Incidentally, in the same article, mention was made of a 2010 incident when hundreds of pelicans washed up on the border between Washington and Oregon. The article blamed a cold front that caused ice to form on the feathers of the bodies and wings of the pelicans.
Birds, much like their human admirers, live in a world greatly affected by the vagaries of weather. All things considered, birds manage to ride out most of what Mother Nature throws their way. It’s one of their many admirable qualities.