Have you watched the YouTube videos of “Harvey,” the Cooper’s hawk that survived Hurricane Harvey?
It’s a heartwarming story, beginning with a taxicab driver filming the hawk huddled in the backseat of his cab. The hawk had taken shelter there before the storm hit. Soon “Harvey” is transported to a wildlife center where he is assessed and found to have minor injuries. Next he is transferred to a rehab center. The last video shows Harvey’s first flight within a large aviary, a week or so prior to his release.
Harvey was a lucky bird, protected from the brunt of the storm safe in the home of an employee of the rehab center. Many of his fellow avian species were not as fortunate.
Thousands of flamingos are known to have perished at Cayo Coco Cays in Cuba. However, the number of birds killed by the strong winds or carried out to sea and drowned will go unrecorded. Given the widespread destruction of some of Texas and Florida’s most important wildlife refuges, we can only guess at the huge number of lost birds.
When hurricanes sweep through an area, some birds, like Harvey, try to find a protected refuge to wait out the storm. But typically there isn’t an open window of a taxi available and the birds are blown into the storm. The plumage of most birds is designed to keep them dry, but heavy rain can waterlog even the most well preened feathers.
Hurricane Irma is likely going to shatter records for duration, intensity, size and destructive force. And even if birds survive the storm, they face widespread defoliation of their native habitat and reduced food sources. Many birds are pushed along with the storm and end up hundreds of miles away from their home.
Ornithologists worry about the highly endangered Bahama Oriole, which inhabited two islands in the Bahamas with a before-storm population of only 140-260 birds total. Or the Barbuda Warbler, another Caribbean island endemic species with a population of less than 2,000 birds.
The biggest concern, however, is how Harvey and Irma will impact fall bird migration. The migration of thrushes, warblers, flycatchers, sparrows, as well as raptors, waterfowl and shorebirds coincides with hurricane season. And this year birds following both the Eastern and Central (Mississippi) flyways encountered huge hurricanes.
Back in 2011 during southbound shorebird migration, among the hundreds of thousands of birds flying south was a whimbrel named Chinquapin by his research team. This bird had been outfitted the year before with a satellite transmitter backpack and scientists monitored the bird’s migration flight patterns along the Eastern flyway. Strong fliers, whimbrels can travel up to 50 miles per hour and cover 3,500 miles without rest.
Chinquapin was on his migration from the Canada’s high Arctic to Brazil when it encountered Hurricane Irene, a Category 3 storm with winds up to 110 miles per hour.
Scientists tracked Chinquapin flying straight through the hurricane and out the other side. It took about 48 tense hours for the data points to come in, but the researchers found Chinquapin alive and well in the Bahamas, where he rested for a couple days before continuing down to Brazil.
Harvey the Cooper’s hawk and Chinquapin the Whimbrel are amazing stories of the fortitude and strength of two lucky birds. But, we must also remember that a very large percentage of migrating and resident birds do not make it through severe weather events such as are happening this fall.
Whether because of forest fires in the Cascades or drought conditions right here on Whidbey Island, we need to give our avian friends every benefit we can. Remain stewards of our natural world even as we reach out to help the many people affected by these recent events.