As residents of the Caribbean struggle to recover from series of hurricanes over the past two months, so do the islands’ feathered friends. The high winds, heavy rains, and flooding that wrecked so many homes and businesses also posed serious threats to wildlife.
Preliminary reports indicate that some populations of birds experienced a far greater impact from the hurricanes than others. A breeding colony of more than 50,000 American flamingoes (Phoenicopterus ruber) managed to evacuate the island of Inagua before the arrival of Hurricane Irma, and conservationists have reported their return.
In the Cayo Coco Cays of Cuba, however, biologists have spotted thousands of dead birds. On the hard-hit islands of Puerto Rico and Barbuda, wildlife impacts are still unclear as residents cope with the immediate humanitarian crisis. (See exclusive aerial photos of the destruction in Puerto Rico.)
Bird species in the Caribbean have long faced severe tropical weather. But many bird species, including the black-capped petrel and the Puerto Rico parrot, in the region are already teetering on the edge of extinction, and an increase in the frequency and intensity of hurricanes could make it harder for them to recover.
“Some of these birds may previously have been able to bounce back, but their resilience may have been diminished,” says Dan Lebbin, vice president of international programs at the American Bird Conservancy.
Like humans, many birds try to get away when they sense an approaching storm. As Hurricane Harvey approached the Texas Gulf Coast, radar picked up the mass exodus of many of the region’s shorebirds ahead of the storm. (Read why this hurricane season has been so catastrophic.)
Birds at sea may simply try to fly around the storm. The size of some of these hurricanes – Irma was more than 400 miles wide at its peak – can make it difficult for birds to escape them. In that case, birds caught in the storm can be blown hundreds of miles off course.
That’s what happened to a bird that washed up on the shores of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. When Stephanie Ellis, executive director at Wild Care, Inc, met a concerned citizen who had found the bird in LeCount Hollow, she initially thought they had rescued a northern gannet (Morus bassanus). A quick phone call to a local bird expert, however, revealed that the bird was actually a masked booby (Sula dactylatra).
“We were just awestruck to see a masked booby staring at us. This bird must have gone for quite a ride,” she says.
Ellis believes that the booby was caught in the winds of Hurricane Jose and blown hundreds of miles away from its likely home in the Caribbean or Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, the bird ultimately didn't survive the journey—it arrived waterlogged, starving, and suffering from a severe fungal infection. Despite efforts to save it, Wild Care announced, the booby died overnight Monday. "We certainly tried our best," Ellis said on the group's Facebook page. "His condition was grim from the beginning."
Both Ellis and Lebbin say that the storm threats to birds are similar to those that we humans tend to worry about. For those birds (and humans) that can’t get out of the way of the oncoming storm, the priority is to find shelter. The flamingoes that couldn’t leave Inagua survived thanks to nearby mangroves. So did reddish egrets (Egretta rufescens) near Sanibel Island in Florida.
Even in these hideaways, birds have to dodge debris and rising waters from flooding and storm surges. This hurricane damage also harms the birds’ food supply. A powerful hurricane may strip all the fruit from a tree, leaving it so stressed it may not fruit again the next year. For birds that rely on this for food, a hurricane like Irma or Maria could mean the start of several very lean years.
The recent spate of storms also reduced or eliminated important conservation infrastructure, including the offices of the conservation group Environmental Protection in the Caribbean on the island of St. Maarten. For rare and endangered species like the black-capped petrel (Pterodroma hasitata) and the Puerto Rican parrot (Amazona vittata), this loss may be felt for years to come due to a diminished ability to protect habitat and rescue sick or injured birds.
Despite this, Lebbin is “cautiously optimistic” about the survival of bird species in the Caribbean, adding, “They’ve evolved to survive hurricanes for millions of years.”