Bird Watchers Observe How April Tornadoes Change Migration Patterns

Oct 30, 2012

"Hi!" shouts Becky Collier, a 4-H program coordinator in West Alabama.

The kids in the audience unenthusiastically shout "hi" back.

“That was pathetic," says Collier.  "We’re going to try that again! HELLO!"

Becky Collier's assistant brings out a bald eagle for schoolkids to see. It's part of the Raptor Trek presentation at the West Alabama Birding Trail Launch September 21.
Credit Maggie Martin/APR News


“That is how not to greet people when you’re birding, okay?" says Collier. She’s holding a presentation on birds of prey, or raptors, for a large group of kids this morning. The raptor demonstration is part of the launch of the West Alabama Birding Trail in Pickens County.

“It’s a beautiful area to be able to see migratory birds come through,” says Mary Rhodes, owner of Tuscaloosa's Wild Birds Unlimited shop. She’s brought bird seed to pass out to kids at today’s trail launch and talk about her passion of bird watching. Rhodes says there was a major drop in bird activity after last April’s tornadoes. But, she says more than a year later, nature is adapting and things are starting to look up.

“This year we have seen a lot more feeder activity at my customer’s feeders whether that be because of droughts or other places across the United States. Nature goes where there’s food, water and shelter,” says Rhodes.

Other bird watching enthusiasts aren’t as optimistic about their recovery.

Paul Franklin is an avid bird watcher. He uses bird calls to draw out different species when they can be hard to spot.

Paul Franklin spots a bird in the distance at Birmingham's Botanical Gardens.
Credit Maggie Martin/APR News

“That’s a shortcut," he explains. "That noise simulates the sound a Screech Owl makes. Some birds will frequently come investigate or mob a Screech Owl if they find it during the day so you’re just trying to get them to be inquisitive and drop in.”

Franklin has served as president of the Birmingham Audubon Society, and he taught birding classes at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Today is typical day for Franklin, who’s out with his binoculars and a well-worn bird guide.

"What that we're hearing now?" I ask.

"That's a chipmunk," says Franklin.

"They are deceptive."

"They really, really are. And Lord knows a lot of beginner birders chase a lot of chipmunks!" laughs Franklin.

Franklin says native species, the ones that breed and stay through the winter in the continental U.S., are actually thriving in Alabama. But for migratory species, like Pee Wees and the Black-throated Blue Warbler, it’s a different story.

“The pure migrants that depend on habitat being there for a certain period of time, for good migratory stopovers on their way to and from the Northern U.S., those are not doing well at all. Probably three-quarters of those are declining,” says Franklin

Franklin says information from breeding birds surveys shows this was happening even before April 27th. But the tornadoes that tore through the state last year made matters worse.

“This is one of the things that happens when you re-jigger habitat with storms or fires is that that spot that’s been available for years is no longer available," says Franklin. "And we’re not creating a vast number of extensive woodlots, so when you wipe something like that off the map, the places for birds to hide, feed, recharge safely, go away. It makes migration a more dangerous thing.”

This drastic change in habitat also impacts breeding for many migratory birds, like Purple Martins and Yellow Warblers. They only produce a few clutches of eggs a year. So when these tornadoes destroyed these habitats, Franklin says they may have lost an entire year of breeding and it could take years to recover.

Purple Martins are migratory birds that only hatch three or so clutches of young a year. Franklin says the April 2011 tornadoes could have cost this species an entire year of breeding.

“You’ve lost an entire ecosystem and it takes generations to restore it," explains Franklin. "So, yeah, many of those birds would come back. Perhaps they have a better opportunity, because of lower competition, to recover those numbers. But it doesn’t happen in a year, it doesn’t happen in two years. It might not happen in five or ten.”

Franklin’s concern over the tornados and their long-term effects on migratory birds is just speculation. In New Orleans, it’s a different matter, where a more scientific approach is underway.

“Basically about 2/3 of the bird population that had been here before the storm had disappeared.”

The storm Doctor Peter Yaukey is talking about is Hurricane Katrina. He’s a professor of geography at the University of New Orleans and conducted urban bird studies before the storm. A few years after Katrina, he went back to those same areas to compare the number of birds present after the storm. He says unlike Alabama, native bird species have been hurt the most, while migratory birds haven’t seen much of an impact. And although the key factor for both events is the dangerous winds, there is a major difference.

“The tornado track is a much narrower impact, geographically spatially then is the impact of Hurricane Katrina," says Yaukey.  "Not only a hurricane, but it was very large for a hurricane. And so when just a small swath of land gets cleared, or a lot of trees get knocked down in it, you may not even be impacting an entire bird’s territory in some cases. It may just simply retreat to the edge of the area, and therefore not be as severely impacted as when you’ve got hundreds of miles that were suffering severe winds as in the hurricane.”

Yaukey says while New Orlean’s bird populations are slow to recover, he’s optimistic that won’t be the case in Alabama. Bird watchers like Mary Rhodes and Paul Franklin will just have to watch, and wait, to see if the Purple Martins and Yellow Warblers keep dropping by during migration season.