Back to Nature (Published on - Sept. 15, 2004)
Post-it note: Where do the birds go in a hurricane?

There on my well-worn backpack had been placed a neatly written, small, square, yellow Post-it note: Where do the birds go in a hurricane?

“Looks like Betty’s handwriting,” I wondered out loud. Betty’s my get-the-artist-out-of-the- studio-friend, or better yet, my let’s-check-out-the-bargains- at-the-dollar-store-companion. If it was up to me, I would simply work in the studio all day until someone stopped me. Certain people compliment me on being “disciplined.” Maybe, I’m thinking. It’s probably more like: driven.

See, to be disciplined, part of that process would be making the calculated decision to actually spend a day writing, painting or working with photography, but I don’t think I’ve ever considered it a choice. It just is. It’s a lifestyle.

Rarely is there a night that I am not driven awake to put down ideas upon paper. I carry a pad of paper with me everywhere. Well, let me backtrack on that. Now, I have entered the age of the new millennium. Never far from my palm is my Palm Pad crammed with little interesting tidbits I’ve pecked out with a black, plastic stylus upon the Palm Pad. Usually there’s something about what color that was or comments on what she or he said.

The brain is always churning, so much so that sometimes I miss the very obvious. While I’m writing about the devastation aftermath of Charley then Frances or worrying over the one that is next in line, Ivan, I missed the fact that there aren’t very many birds outside my window. Where do they go? Good question, Betty!

I’ve found several answers to this question and any one of them may be a combination of truths or is partially accurate, according to the researcher’s experience. From my own observations during past typical, subtropical summer storms, most birds “hunker-down” just like we do. They get out of the trees. They find refuge under eves, drain pipes, under bridges and on one occasion I observed a family of blue jays huddled together under the bolted down hurricane shutter. But remember birds have this natural ability to “hold on” with their feet when out of balance so for many an average storm birds simply get under some large leaves and hold on.

These skills and normal refuges would apply for our normal kick-up-some-dust, twist-some-trees Florida storms. Having just returned from Punta Gorda, witnessing first hand the incredible devastation of what a hurricane can leave behind, I realize there might not necessarily be any eaves or shutters to hide behind or sheltered branches to grip. That landscape was flattened.

Ongoing research suggests that, yes, some birds do find refuge, but many don’t. Many birds don’t survive. As well, birds also are vulnerable to heat loss, disease and injuries. Some birds are displaced by the storm winds, in other words, blown into other territories. Some birds are blown out to sea to drown under unrelenting winds and rains. Pelagic birds such as gulls, terns, pelicans and so on have been observed along rivers and lakes until the storm subsides. A significant amount of research indicates that after areas begin to slowly rehabilitate certain species of birds from outlying areas move in and make new homes where other birds have been permanently displaced.

Documentation of rare species survival is understandably lacking. Long-term research is difficult to amass due to funding and logistics. One look at the landscape Hurricane Charley left behind and it would not take much to realize that counting birds in these conditions would be extremely difficult, if not, in a lot of cases, next to impossible.

Another important factor that is often overlooked is after a storm of great magnitude, such as Charley and Francis, the entire landscape is upside-down. Trees aren’t where they’re supposed to be, decaying debris spills into the waterways, leaf litter suffocates the lakes and rivers of oxygen. The entire food chain has been disrupted. There will be many challenges met by those birds that survive the storms as they try to cope with the drastic cataclysm of habitat destruction and potential renewal.

So to answer your question my dear Betty, “Where do the birds go in a hurricane?” It seems they do very much like we do. Birds try to get out of the way, steer clear, race ahead. Some birdie families attempt to outrun the inevitable storm while others just pack up the babies and hunker-down.

In Pinellas County, bread and batteries are sold off the shelves again. There are long lines for gas and plywood. Some cars are packed to the hilt with belongings, airlines are filled with escapees. Some of us will survive. Some of us won’t. Some of us will stay to rebuild. Some of us will throw in the towel. Some of us will help less fortunate. Some of us will complain that their pity is greater. Most of us will come together as a community and welcome the hands of others.

So, put out a little bird seed and fresh, clean water. We’re all related after the storm.

The University of Florida has a Web site,, loaded with archives of individual observations from birders and wildlife managers across our state. This site offers a firsthand glimpse at what people are dealing with in Florida as they work to save wildlife affected by our recent weather.

Karen can be reached at

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