This year’s B.C. Interior bird count revealed more than just a rare sighting of the Lapland longspur – it showed just how savvy birds can be in predicting the weather, at least according to bird count organizer, Doug Brown.
As reported in the Osoyoos Times, the 37th annual Oliver-Osoyoos Christmas Bird Count turned up an unusually low number of Canada geese for the area (the lowest count in 20 years) along with nary a sighting of the marsh wren. Brown attributes these results to the birds’ foreknowledge about this year’s snowfall. “I can’t prove that’s what it is, but they always know the weather way before we do,” he says.
According to Brown, as early as September, migratory birds like the saw-whet owl could be seen packing their bags. “They are eight-inch high owls.
How do you think they’re going to hunt in the snow for rodents? They can’t. They were leaving. In September they knew.”
There is plenty of old-timey wisdom about birds predicting tomorrow’s forecast – a rooster crowing at night means it’s going to rain – but now scientists are starting to produce real evidence to back up the theory.
According to a 2013 study conducted at Western University, birds can detect changes in barometric pressure that signal bad weather ahead. Researchers at Western’s Advanced Facility for Avian Research studying the white-throated sparrow noticed behavioural changes in response to a drop in barometric pressure, as if in preparation for an upcoming storm.
And in 2014, American scientists studying the migration route of the golden-winged warbler were surprised to see them not only predict a severe thunderstorm in Tennessee but also move out of its way – flying all the way to Florida and Cuba for a few days before returning to continue their migration.
Researchers suspect that the birds could hear the low-frequency noise (infrasound) produced by the far-off storm and divert their plans accordingly.
But what about major weather events like typhoons and earthquakes? Animals, including birds, are known to react in anticipation of extreme weather.
In 2005, many witnessed the strange behaviour of wildlife minutes before the tsunami hit the coasts of Sri Lanka and India. Elephants were seen running for higher ground and screaming, zoo animals rushed into their shelters and flamingos left their low-lying breeding areas. And while the tsunami proved devastating to human populations – over 150,000 people died – it has been reported that relatively few animals perished.
The ability that birds have to detect the Earth’s magnetic field is said to give them a leg up when it comes to earthquake detection, since fluctuations in the magnetic field have been measured prior to some earthquakes.
Last month, the 4.8 magnitude earthquake that hit Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland was detected in advance by technology developed at UBC’s Earthquake Engineering Research Facility. The alarm sounded 13 seconds prior to the actual tremors, and researchers say that even those few seconds’ warning can reduce potential casualties by half.
The Oliver-Osoyoos Christmas Bird Count is one of 2,400 counts conducted annually throughout the Americas to monitor bird populations and guide conservation efforts. This was the 116th year of the count in North America.