These Brave Seabirds Survive Severe Storms By Flying Into Them

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Streaked shearwaters (pictured above) occasionally fly through typhoons (Credit: Yusuke Goto)

Many ocean-dwelling birds make huge detours to avoid severe storms. But not the streaked shearwaters! A new study led by Professor Ken Yoda of Japan's Nagoya University asserts that the brave seabirds often fly right into the eye of the storm to survive.

The scientists analyzed 11 years of data collected from GPS trackers attached to the wings of 401 shearwaters nesting on Japan's Awashima Island. They found that 75 birds chose to fly during ten typhoons or tropical storms. Some even chased the storm's eye for up to eight hours!

"It was one of those moments where we couldn't believe what we were seeing," says study co-author Emily Shepard. "We had a few predictions for how they might behave, but this was not one of them."

The tracking data show three shearwaters (seen here in red and teal) flew toward the eye of Typhoon Cimarron in August 2018 through some of the highest winds. Two other birds (light green) began heading toward the eye as the storm swept past. (Credit: E. LEMPIDAKIS ET AL/PNAS 2022 / CC BY NC-ND 4.0)

The researchers, who published their findings in the journal PNAS on October 4, 2022, say shearwaters thrive in windy environments. The strong winds over water enable the birds to glide for long distances without flapping their wings too much, saving energy. While skilled in flight, shearwaters are clumsy on land. The birds have a hard time taking off, leaving them at risk of predators like crows and cats.

This may explain why some shearwaters prefer flying into the storm to survive. But to do that, the birds need to know where the land is so they can avoid it. The adult shearwaters seem to have developed a mental map to guide them in the right direction. But the younger birds may not have had the time to gather this knowledge. This could be why large numbers of young streaked shearwaters wash up on the coastline after storms.

This is the first time a bird species has been observed flying into a severe storm. However, Andrew Farnsworth believes it may be a common tactic used by sea birds to preserve energy during hurricanes. The bird specialist at Cornell University says, "It might seem counterintuitive. But from the perspective of bird behavior, it makes a lot of sense."

Resources: Theconversation.com, Smithsonianmag.com, sciencenews.org

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