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Ask the Naturalist: Where Do Birds Go When it Rains?

by on December 11, 2014

Mallard in the rain. Photo: Steph Weiss
The mallard is one kind of bird that fares well in stormy weather. Others are not so lucky. Photo: Steph Weiss, Flickr

Q: With the big Bay Area storm approaching, I’m concerned about how it might affect our resident and migrant birds. What do they do and where do they go to wait out the storm?

— Beth, Berkeley

San Francisco naturalist Josiah Clark says rain means different things for different kinds of birds: Some cope a whole lot better than others.

A: The sea gives birth to the storm and it’s the seabirds that feel it first. With instincts any sailor would envy, seabirds sense and flee from the storm front, often arriving in numbers days before the weather makes landfall. Larger pelagic birds somehow retain their independence from land, toughing out even the most raging of storms. In these conditions it is the smaller pelagic birds that are brought to the brink. With less mass and running on tighter energy budgets, murrelets, phalaropes, and the aptly-named Storm Petrels near land are signs of an uncommonly torn-up ocean beyond the horizon.

Closer to shore, gulls, pelicans, and loons stream south over wave and bluff in a darkening sky, avoiding the worst of the storm’s wrath. But when seabirds get unlucky, exhausted, and too wet, they are at the mercy of the current. At the Golden Gate on an incoming tide it means getting sucked into the Bay. This accounts for many of the only East and South Bay records for truly pelagic birds. Despite their remarkable instincts and endurance, countless seabirds of many types perish during extreme winter storms. But only a fraction of their corpses can be found at the high tide line after any big storm.

As for land birds, if the rain is not too heavy nor too cold, most birds will keep feeding. Stalwart Christmas bird counters regularly go birding in the rain, and there is often sustained activity with plenty to look at even in heavy rain if you know where to look. But what happens to them when it’s pouring, say, for days?

The water-shedding micro-structures of flight feathers shed droplets off the birds’ back. An oil gland at the base of the tail helps keep the feathers zipped up water-tight. The inner insulating layers of down feathers are kept dry and able to be fluffed up with air, holding in body heat.

If I were a bird I would want to go inside a dry stump. As it turns out, only birds that nest in cavities are likely to have that luxury. Flocks of Pygmy Nuthatches pack into chiseled holes in dead snags like clown cars, where they seem to embody the meaning of “cozy”. They also have caches of pine seeds stashed nearby for just such an occasion.

Black-capped chickadee in the rain. Photo: JFrancisKay, Flickr

Black-capped chickadee in the rain. Photo: JFrancisKay, Flickr

Most songbirds have to wait out the rain perched motionless in the foliage, much as they do at night. They remain in energy conservation mode, retaining heat and energy until the rain stops. But if it does not stop, they have to feed in the rain to stoke the fire. Sparrows, finches, and other granivores seem always to be able to find seed, even finding newly deposited food on the ground. Thrushes seem especially bold in the rain. Robins and Hermit Thrushes hunt for flooded out worms and grubs or roost and feed among fruiting Toyon and Madrone.

Insectivores surely have it the worst. Their thin, athletic bodies hold little fat or heat and their diets fewer calories. Their insect prey becomes inactive and stops growing in the rain. Eventually after enough rain and wind the insects and other invertebrates are literally washed out of the trees leaving nothing to eat up there. The epitome of food stress is a flock of tame insectivores looking for dead bugs on the ground. This is the last stage of starvation before they die.

During severe rain and cold in urban areas, insectivores will erupt into even the busiest streets, seeking out exotic, nectar rich blossoms where the old corpses of thrip, flies and other tiny insects remain entombed in the gummy nectar of eucalyptus, bottlebrush and albizia, among others. This would be all good except that these tiny birds are not adapted to have gummy nectar on their feathers. The signs of this “gumming” are obvious in the often encrusted faces of warblers and are presumed at least somewhat detrimental.

Raptors seem as unhappy as cats in rain. They are more apt to get soaked through, relying more on their mass to stay warm. After a storm, hawks can be seen spreading their wings as depicted on totem poles. It often takes a whole day for a buteo to dry out enough to make a long flight, as the pattern clearly shows at hawk watch stations. In the absence of the larger raptors, the smaller Sharp-shinned Hawk and Merlin take center stage, merciless as they prey on yet others emboldened by food stress. In the quest for food, their prey take bigger risks, straying further and further into the open.

Waterbirds are in their element and generally thrive even in heavy rain. Ducks and waders know just what to do, leaving deeper water behind, moving into newly flooded fields and coves where new opportunities abound. They seem to relish the relative lack of predators and ability to fully utilize their marvelous adaptations to water.

So what do birds do in the rain? We are so lucky right now to get to ponder the question. And as much as I have always dreamed of being a bird, as the storm rages outside I just don’t think I am that tough.

Watch consulting naturalist Josiah Clark’s nature videos here.

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Where do Birds go When it Rains? | NatureOutside on December 15th, 2014 at 9:47 am

[…] BayNature – Ask the Naturalist: Where do birds go when it rains? […]

Keith McAllister on December 18th, 2014 at 11:27 am

Again, the often repeated tale of “beak gumming” by eucalyptus. Now something new: albizia and bottlebrush are added to the list of alleged culprits. Clark here replaces the claim that gumming is lethal with “presumed at least somewhat detrimental.” But still no evidence. The story has been around so long that evidence should be presented by now. But with no evidence behind it, it remains a myth.

K!!!ay Tomlinson Taylor on March 26th, 2015 at 7:09 pm

Have long wondered just where our feathered friends went during a rain. So grateful for your article which covered birds of all areas. Thank you

Jo on April 25th, 2015 at 3:30 pm

Thank you for your intelligent, one of a kind websites. We have a question, we cannot find an answer to. Crossing the Nevada desert in very high wind conditions, we wonder where do sm birds go, find shelter? Thank you

lillian on May 6th, 2015 at 8:39 pm

It is raining out side I live in Utah where did the birds go, I CSRE

david on May 23rd, 2015 at 8:05 pm

What do the land birds eat in the rain talking about doves,pigeons ETC…

araina on November 9th, 2015 at 2:21 pm

I am still concerned about what type of birds fly in the rain b/c it is raining and they’re are a lot of birds out

Where Do Birds Go In the Rain? | Natural History Wanderings on November 19th, 2015 at 4:01 am

[…] Bay Nature answer the question in the article Ask the Naturalist: Where do birds go when it rains? – Bay Nature. […]

Jan on June 2nd, 2016 at 4:33 pm

It is POURING rain and there are birds with white undersides flying almost in circles and at right angles. I have never seen that. What kind of bird does that?

D.J. on July 10th, 2016 at 11:13 am

My natural curiosity and Google led me here. Thank you for writing such an insightful article.

Chris on January 23rd, 2017 at 8:32 am

I am amazed how our bird friends seem to be surviving on this planet given that humans have created an environmental mess for them.

Sheila on August 5th, 2017 at 6:09 am

Thanks for this detailed answer to the question of what birds do in the rain. I am reading The Genius of Birds, by Jennifer Ackerman, a book many here might enjoy because of its very interesting discussions of research on bird intelligence.

Jonathan Baker on August 22nd, 2017 at 11:15 pm

When a storm brews, reactions of both mammals and birds alike are naturally to seek out shelter, away from the storm. Seabirds have that strong sense, and are able to evade storms quickly, flying away to drier places, where they can avoid getting wet. Water birds enjoy the rain, as much as they enjoy water below their feathers. Birds found on land are more weatherproof when it comes to light rains, but when rains get stronger, the natural reaction, like people, is to seek out shelter. For example, songbirds would tend to cower and reserve their energy for a brighter day. Raptor birds do not do well with bad weather, and get threatened by strong rains, tending to hunt for survival.

Scott Alexander on February 21st, 2018 at 5:18 am

Lots of INFO I didn’t know.

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