When a large hurricane or typhoon blows in, many birds understandably keep their distance. Land species tend to shelter in place, while seabirds might fly for hundreds of miles to avoid the storm.
Now, a paper published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences details an astonishing new tactic for storm survival—some seabirds will fly straight into it.
Using GPS trackers, scientists monitored the movement of 401 streaked shearwaters breeding on Japan’s Awashima Island over 11 years. Of those birds, they found 75 that flew during typhoons or tropical storms. The paper is “the largest tracking dataset for animals in storms” to date, as co-author Emily Shepard, an expert on animal movement at Swansea University in Wales, writes in the Conversation.
The tracked birds chased the eye of the storm for up to eight hours.
“It was one of those moments where we couldn’t believe what we were seeing,” Shepard tells Science News’ Freda Kreier. “We had a few predictions for how they might behave, but this was not one of them.”
If a typhoon or hurricane hit while the shearwaters were far out at sea, they would circumnavigate it, the team revealed with statistical modeling. But most birds they examined foraged close to land. If these animals got caught between the storm and dry land, they avoided the ground—and headed for the storm. The shearwaters were also more likely to fly toward the eye during stronger storms, per the study.
During a typhoon, “there comes a point where their flight speed cannot match the wind speed, […and] birds start to drift with the wind,” lead author and Swansea University movement ecologist Emmanouil Lempidakis says in a statement. But the study suggests that birds still prefer this drifting to getting pushed over land.
Shearwaters are adapted to windy environments. They thrive over the water, where strong winds allow them to glide for long distances without flapping, effectively conserving energy. But put them on land, and the birds are awkward. From solid ground, shearwaters have a hard time taking off, leaving them at risk of predation by birds of prey or crows, per the Conversation. Though they come ashore to breed, shearwaters spend most of their time over the ocean.
The birds’ curious behavior of flying toward typhoons serves “to avoid strong onshore winds that occur in the wake of storms,” the authors write in the paper. The “safer option” for them is to fly away from the land, toward the storm's eye, per the Conversation.
“It might seem counterintuitive,” Andrew Farnsworth, an ornithologist at Cornell University who was not involved in the research, tells Science News. “But from the perspective of bird behavior, it makes a lot of sense.”
More research is needed to determine how other seabirds respond to intense storms, per the Conversation, but it’s likely this strategy is used only in fast-flying birds, such as shearwaters and albatrosses, that are adapted to the wind.