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Storm Detecting Birds

December 25, 2014

Some birds may use their excellent hearing to detect approaching storms.



Mark Peck flickr golden-winged warbler

A golden-winged warbler may use its hearing for more than just communication. (Mark Peck/flickr)

Can birds listen for storms? I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Small birds called golden-winged warblers apparently detected an approaching storm supercell up to two days in advance and flew hundreds of miles south to avoid it. UC Berkeley wildlife ecologist Henry Streby had placed tracking devices on the birds, and reports his findings in the journal Current Biology.


Everything that is supposed to tell them the storm is coming, like changes in barometric pressure, wind speed and direction, and cloud cover did not show up anywhere near our study sites until a full day after the birds left.


But the enormous storm system did produce infrasound—low frequency noise that travels hundreds of miles. Infrasound is inaudible to people, but not to birds, and Streby suspects the warblers heard the distant storm approaching and abandoned their breeding grounds until it passed. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.