Problems caused by unnatural disasters such as oil spills, airplane strikes and window collisions generate a lot of interest in bird conservation, but natural disasters can be just as devastating to wild birds. In many cases, a large scale natural disaster can be even more detrimental than an unnatural event because not only is it harmful, but its effect is relatively unnoticed and the affected birds may receive little assistance.
Types of Natural Disasters That Impact Birds
Any natural disasters can have a severe impact on wild birds, and even events that may not seem entirely disastrous can have grave consequences depending on how, when and where they strike. Disasters most likely to affect birds include:
- Hurricanes, tornadoes and other strong winds
- Blizzards, ice storms and severe cold
- Earthquakes and landslides
- Floods and tsunamis
- Forest fires and wildfires
- Droughts and heat waves
The Effects of Natural Disasters on Birds
Depending on the type of disaster, one or more devastating effects can impact wild birds in the affected area.
- Nesting Destruction: Nesting areas can easily be burned, flooded or buried by natural disasters. If the event occurs during the breeding season, chicks, eggs and brooding adults can be killed, or if the event occurs outside the breeding season, the critical nesting habitat may be unsuitable for the next year's reproduction cycle, which can greatly impact future population numbers.
- Food Destruction: Food sources such as grain, seeds, insects, nectar and small animals can all be destroyed by natural disasters. This leaves birds without adequate food supplies and forces them to expend much more energy foraging or competing with other individuals over what little food remains.
- Habitat Damage: Natural disasters can damage or destroy the habitat birds need to survive. Whether it is a bird's nesting area or not, the loss of suitable habitat can impact birds by removing shelter and roosting areas that are critical for year-round birds as well as for migratory species.
- Direct Deaths: Some natural disasters can directly cause the deaths of otherwise healthy birds. Sudden winds can blow birds into obstacles and cause death by impact trauma, heat waves can cause dehydration and cold snaps can freeze birds that don't have adequate protection.
- Migration Disruption: Natural disasters can devastate birds if the event interferes with migration. A flight of hundreds or thousands of miles is already hazardous, and storms that require detours can exhaust birds and create much higher migration mortality. Furthermore, birds forced to migrate along an unfamiliar route may run into additional hazards, such as lower food supplies or unexpected predators.
- Creating Unnatural Disasters: Natural disasters have the possibility of creating unnatural disasters that can cripple birds. A hurricane, for example, could damage an offshore oil rig and cause an oil spill that would affect birds and other wildlife long after the storm has dissipated.
- Less Assistance: In the wake of a natural disaster, wild birds suffer from lowered interest in conservation efforts as donations are redirected toward emergency relief services. In the long term, this can impact birds by decreasing the overall effectiveness of conservation initiatives.
How Birds Adapt to Natural Disasters
Cumulatively, the effects of natural disasters on birds may seem horrendous to the point where it is a miracle that any birds survive at all. While some species are more heavily impacted by these events than others, birds are generally resilient and can adapt to natural events in different ways, such as:
- Changing ranges, territories and migration routes to more suitable areas over time.
- Adapting to a niche that benefits from certain disasters, such as feeding on insects in dead trees after a forest fire.
- Irrupting to take advantage of different territories or food sources until the impacted area recovers.
- Raising multiple broods of chicks to replace young that may be lost to a disaster.
Despite these adaptations, however, natural disasters still devastate many types of birds, and proper conservation is essential to help species recover.
Helping Minimize Natural Disasters
Natural disasters, by definition, are a force of nature and are unable to be stopped or avoided, but every birder can help minimize the damage these disasters can inflict on wild bird populations. To help protect birds from natural disasters:
- Donate to conservation organizations in affected areas to support recovery projects, or volunteer directly if possible.
- Support replacement conservation efforts such as habitat restoration or captive bird breeding programs.
- Be a green birder to minimize unnatural impacts on birds when they must already contend with natural hazards.
- Keep bird feeders filled, bird baths fresh and bird houses safe when local disasters are imminent so birds have reliable food, water and shelter when they need it most.
Natural disasters can damage bird populations, but between birds' natural adaptability and concerted efforts at recovery and conservation by conscientious birders, natural disasters don't have to be quite so disastrous.
Photo – Damaged Nest © Michelle Kinsey Bruns