Science uncertain how wildlife deals with severe weather

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In the wake of the severe storms we endure each summer, I often hear from readers who wonder how wildlife weathers these conditions. The simple answer is that we don't really know. Severe storms are usually brief events, and to really understand their impact on wildlife, individual animals would have to be marked and relocated after the storms.

With ever evolving technology, such studies may someday be possible. But I know of no such work that has been done to date. That leaves conjecture and common sense.

Annabel Timms of Bridgeport, W.Va., asked about a recent storm that ravaged in her neighborhood.

"It was a terrible storm," she wrote, "with a heavy downpour, hail, lightning and strong winds. The next morning our lawn was littered with downed tree limbs, but our bird feeders hosted the usual gang -- hummingbirds, goldfinches, etc. How do they survive?"

More recently, a deadly flash flood roared through the Washington Boulevard section of Pittsburgh. After making sure that family, friends and property are safe, the concerns of conservation-minded folks turned to wildlife.

Many animals seem to sense when bad weather approaches. They become restless, often abandon their normal activities, and sometimes flee the area. I suspect many can detect subtle changes in barometric pressure that precede approaching storms.

Cavity-nesting birds and mammals no doubt ride out storms in tree cavities. As long as the tree doesn't snap, they're fine. If a tree beaks off at the cavity, the occupants may get waterlogged and succumb to hypothermia.

In the case of flash floods, burrow dwelling animals may seem doomed. But most mammal burrows are not simply holes in the ground. Often these animals burrow down and then turn the burrow upward before excavating their living quarters. This makes it less likely that floods completely wash out burrow systems.

During prolonged, extended floods, however, all bets are off, and many burrow dwellers probably die.

High winds pose a different kind of problem. If I have trouble staying upright in a windstorm, birds must be at great risk. Anecdotal evidence suggests that at such times, small birds hunker down in dense vegetation, preferably close to the ground, and hang on for dear life.


Scott Shalaway is a biologist and author. His other weekly Post-Gazette column, "Wildlife," runs Sundays on the outdoors page in Sports. He can be reached at sshalaway@aol.com or RD 5, Cameron, WV 26033.


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