With deadly power, Hurricane Dorian sweeps birds onto Nova Scotia shores

It's not just people and properties that have felt the wrath of Hurricane Dorian. 

Many birds in have suffered through the strong winds and rain too. People have reported seeing swaths of swallows, apparently resting on the pavement. Sadly, not all of them made it through the storm.

Tara Imlay, a researcher who studies swallow populations in the Maritimes, said there are a few reasons swallows might be resting in groups on the ground.

"They feed on aerial insects, which are just abundant in the sky," she said.

During storms, she said the food becomes less available, and simultaneously it becomes more difficult for the birds to fly. Imlay said it's possible the birds found a concentration of food in those areas, or were resting between flights.

"It's hard to know exactly why. It could be one or the other," Imlay said.

Some swallow species have been on the decline for years. Imlay said large storms, especially during the fall when birds start migrating, have had substantial impacts on the decrease of their populations.

Caught in the eye of the storm

Lucas Berrigan works for conservation group Bird Studies Canada and said he has seen many birds rarely seen on these shores that were caught up in Dorian's winds and swept up to Nova Scotia.

He told CBC's Mainstreet there is one group of several hundred laughing gulls that were likely taken all the way up from the Carolinas or from Florida. 

"Once the storm hit land, they stop wherever they can land so they can rest because they would have been flying the whole way through," Berrigan said.

"The hurricane moves relatively slowly so they can get stuck in there for many, many days. We can't say how many birds die."

He said many of the birds, weakened from the journey, are unlikely to be able to fly home or survive the Nova Scotia winter. Berrigan is also warning drivers to be cautious on the roads of sluggish and tired birds.

It's difficult to estimate how many birds could be caught in the eye of a hurricane, but Berrigan says it could range up to hundreds of thousands. Some birdwatchers in Nova Scotia have reported seeing exotic birds that are rare in these parts, such as the sooty tern, which Berrigan said was likely blown here from the Bahamas.  

Landed seabirds

Seabirds also haven't been faring so well in the wake of last weekend's storm.

Murdo Messer, who runs the Cobequid Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, said these birds spend their lives at sea, and only come to land to nest and have their young. 

"The way they evolved, their bodies simply aren't able to get enough speed to lift off from land," he said. "They're completely adapted to ocean."

Messer said these would be birds such as storm petrels and murres, and if they're found on land they often get eaten by predators like foxes or eagles.

The other issue, he said, is that these birds have natural protection in their feathers that keeps them alive and afloat on the ocean, but it can be very easily damaged.

"If they return to water they'll probably die," Messer said. "And that can come from people handling with their bare hands because their skin's oil can actually damage their thermal protection."

Messer said if you see a landed seabird, handle it with gloves or by picking it up with a towel and placing it in a box.

"Just keep an eye out for them," he said. "They will try to hide from people because they're wildlife and they're afraid. So odds are you may come across it when you least expect it."

Anyone who spots a bird in need of help can give him a call at the Cobequid Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre at 902-893-0253. Hope for Wildlife can be reached at 902-407-9453.

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