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Golden-winged Warblers abandoned breeding grounds before severe storm blew in

Golden-winged Warbler in Swanton, Vermont, June 19, 2014, by bobvt.
Golden-winged Warbler in Swanton, Vermont, June 19, 2014, by bobvt.

Birds’ abilities to sense approaching storms and imminent earthquakes are not understood well, but it’s clear they’re better than our own.

Banders in southern Israel, for example, reported that gulls and herons took wing just before a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck in 1995 (Julie Craves reported this in her column “Since You Asked” in June 2010), while a Marbled Godwit wearing a satellite transmitter flew from Baja California to Texas and back, apparently to avoid Hurricane John in 2006 (PDF). Now, thanks to researchers led by Henry Streby of the University of California Berkeley, we know that songbirds, too, are acutely aware of coming bad weather.

In 2013, he and his team equipped 20 male Golden-winged Warblers that nest in eastern Tennessee with miniature light-level geolocators. He later recovered backpacks from five birds.

Each spent the winter in Colombia and arrived on breeding territories between April 13 and April 27, 2014, just as a powerful weather system started to move east through the central and southern United States. The storm would spawn 84 tornadoes and kill 35 people, but, as Streby writes in the January 5 issue of Current Biology, the warblers eluded it.

One to two days before it hit, each bird abandoned its territory and flew south to the Gulf Coast, over 400 miles away. The warblers returned May 1-2, after the storm had passed, and promptly resumed defending territories. Most likely, Streby suggests, the birds were tipped off by ultra-low-frequency sound waves produced by the advancing storm.

A version of this article appeared in the April 2015 issue of BirdWatching. Subscribe.

Read the abstract:

Henry M. Streby, Gunnar R. Kramer, Sean M. Peterson, Justin A. Lehman, David A. Buehler, David E. Andersen. 2015. Tornadic Storm Avoidance Behavior in Breeding Songbirds. Current Biology, Volume 25, Issue 1, pages 98–102, 5 January 2015. Abstract.

Read other news stories we’ve published in “Birding Briefs.”


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