Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Storm birds

Storm birds Allison Mills
25 Jul
The golden-winged warbler is elusive and can apparently predict severe storms. But science is catching up with the bird

‘This is one of the things that people in our field sit and talk and dream about, “Wouldn’t it be cool if someone caught one of these birds someday?’’,’ says Amber Roth, a researcher at the Michigan Technological University.

Roth and her fellow researchers finally caught a golden-winged warbler in Nicaragua’s Reserva el Jaguar. As warblers go, this was an unusual bird. It had already been caught and tagged in Illinois at the start of its migration to the south. ‘It’s a needle in the haystack for sure, especially for this species,’ adds Roth.

‘I saw a lot of golden-wings come through in the spring, but I had never caught one in Illinois,’ says James Marshall from Rockford University. Marshall tagged the warbler in Stevenson Dells, a shrubby ‘forest island’ environment that the warblers share with grouse and woodcocks.

Roth, meanwhile, attached a geolocator to the warbler, which allows the bird’s migration pattern to be tracked. Each year the warbler flies from the Great Lakes in the US to Central America.

Geolocators attached to warblers in previous experiments have revealed the bird appears to have an ability to detect incoming storms. When warblers arrived at a breeding ground in Cumberland, Tennessee it was for a short stay – the birds left almost immediately, and travelled around 900 miles in five days to avoid storms that produced major tornadoes.

‘The most curious finding is that the birds left long before the storm arrived,’ says Henry Streby from the University of California, Berkeley. ‘At the same time that meteorologists on The Weather Channel were telling us this storm was headed in our direction, the birds were apparently already packing their bags and evacuating the area.’ The warblers left the area 24 hours before the storm hit.

‘Meteorologists and physicists have known for decades that tornadic storms make very strong infrasound that can travel thousands of kilometres,’ says Streby.

image120839-horizA tagged warbler (Image: Allison Mills)

Birds with sensitive hearing on the same frequency as a storm have a clue that extreme weather is on the way. Warblers will even alter migration routes to avoid storms, which could increase their resilience to climate change.

‘Our observation suggests [that] birds aren’t just going to sit there and take it with regards to climate change, and maybe they will fare better than some have predicted,’ Streby says. ‘On the other hand, this behaviour presumably costs the birds some serious energy and time that hey should be spending on reproducing.’

Related items

Subscribe and Save!

geo line break v3

Free eBooks - Geographical Newsletter

Sign up for our weekly newsletter today and get a FREE eBook collection!

geo line break v3

University of Winchester

geo line break v3


Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Derby




Travel the Unknown

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...


The prestigious photography awards to go on display in some…


The discovery of a slow-motion earthquake near Istanbul, which took…


The 2014 to 2016 marine heatwave, which took place off…


Marco Magrini discovers that hydrogen is back, but hopefully not…


 A ten-year analysis of chimpanzees has revealed that the presence…


The return of the pine marten to UK forests has…


A project in Orkney is converting excess wind energy into…


Mountains provide a dramatic sight at the best of times,…


A surge in reports of dead hares has resulted in…


Four scientists have banded together to make the case against the farming of octopuses, arguing…


As planetary oil consumption hits the 100-million-barrel mark Marco Magrini…


A ship that ran aground early in February has been…


Two whale populations on either side of the African continent…


March traditionally heralds the beginning of spring, a time of…


An innovative project to utilise Laos’ elephant experts in service…


Despite common belief that Antarctica is vastly uninhabited, humans are…


Javan rhinos survived the recent Krakatoa tsunami, but the species…


As the world turns away from fossil fuels, one question…


The winners of the Outdoor Photographer of the Year 2018…


New legislation in Florida aims to solve various environmental issues,…