If you’ve ever gotten stuck in a flash downpour, you know just how crummy unpredictable weather can be. Meteorologists rely on all sorts of tools to forecast the weather, and they can still manage to get it wrong. Birds, on the other hand, have an innate ability to sense weather patterns, and it turns out that they can even predict pop-up storms before they happen. How do they do it? It all comes down to using the noggin.
Predicting the Weather Helps Birds Stay Alive
Getting the forecast right is much more than a hobby for birds. In many cases, it means the difference between life and death. Not only does severe weather make it difficult and dangerous to fly, it can also cause food sources to become scarce and nearly impossible to locate. In addition, high winds and heavy rain can batter birds and do a number on nests, so being able to sense an impending storm can encourage birds to stay alert, stock up on food, seek shelter, or flee if necessary.
How Do Birds Sense Weather?
Scientists have noted two distinct ways that birds sense weather. The first and most common across several species is by reading the air pressure, or barometric pressure. You can think of air pressure as the density or ‘heaviness’ of air molecules. Lower barometric pressure is a clear sign that cold fronts – and less desirable flying conditions – are on their way. Birds are incredibly capable of sensing subtle changes in air pressure. While scientists aren’t exactly sure how they do this, the leading theory is that birds sense air pressure either with their inner ear or with the air sacs connected to their lungs.
In addition to sensing barometric pressure, researchers believe that some birds, like golden-winged warblers, can also hear infrasound, a super low-frequency level of noise that humans cannot detect. This theory suggests that birds can actually hear a massive thunderstorm that is still several days away from rolling in. For perspective, this means that a bird in Tennessee may be able to hear a storm brewing in the Great Plains. Talk about advanced warning!
Common Bird Behavior Related to Weather
There are many behavioral clues that birders can look out for to note when birds are sensing dramatic weather ahead. Take a look at some of the most common behavioral signs:
Perching on Power Lines
While resting on power lines is an everyday occurrence for many birds, an abundance of birds lined up for a lengthy period of time can be a sign that the barometric pressure has dropped. When the barometric pressure is low, birds have to work harder and burn more energy to fly, which is why they tend to take a time-out on power lines in order to conserve strength.
Sudden, Unusual Migration
In the case of the golden-winged warblers who flew the coop in Tennessee in the middle of breeding season, researchers have theorized that they took a brief escape to more pleasant weather in Florida because they could actually hear severe storms brewing all the way in the Great Plains.
Seagulls Coming in From the Coast
Sailors have noted all sorts of peculiar bird behaviors linked with weather patterns and other astrological events. These sayings serve as entertaining folklore, but some are noticeably accurate. One of the most common observations is that coastal birds, like seagulls, tend to come ashore before strong weather hits, a smart survival technique that allows the birds to dodge dangerous weather while out on the water.
If you’ve ever been outside just before a storm, there’s a good chance you’ve noticed the quiet stillness that settles in the air. Birds tend to stop singing and chirping when they sense dangerous weather brewing, resulting in a somewhat spooky silence that’s enough to make any birder abandon ship and head indoors.
While scientists continue to explore the precise biological mechanisms at play, it’s quite clear that birds have an innate ability to sense the weather – sometimes even better than our own meteorological forecasts!