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Ever notice that when it’s pouring down rain outside there usually aren't any birds to be seen? It is well known that waterlogged birds cannot fly. It's certainly a curious sight to see a normally bird-filled area devoid of avians. If birds spend so much of their time hanging out in the relative open available to be seen by all, where do they go when it rains?
Much like the mystery of Reddit’s famous A858 thread, we have more questions than answers when it comes to this quandary. Just where do birds go when it rains? Even famous webcomic writer Randall Monroe pondered this very question on an XKCD comic a few years ago. In this article, we will dive deep into the unknown to explore some of the most prominent, as well as one of the lesser-known, theories about where birds go when it rains.
Canopy Domicile Theory
The most common theory that would explain where birds go when it rains is the Canopy Domicile Theory. This theory suggests that during heavy rains, birds will seek shelter in nearby bushes and trees [Gilson, 2019]. As the theory goes, the leaves of these common plants act like “mini-umbrellas” which can shed water away, protecting the bird from the rainfall. While in hiding, the birds tend to rest motionlessly in order to save energy [Stolper, 2018]. Remaining hidden under a few leaves can often be enough to keep birds safe from hypothermia and potential drowning.
Storm Avoidance Theory
The Storm Avoidance Theory suggests that some birds simply flee and fly to a place where the weather is better. While this theory may not be as satisfactory as the explanation of birds hiding in bushes, this theory does have a few supporting facts to back it up. For instance, scientists have proven that many bird species can sense even minuscule changes in air pressure. This “sixth sense” can alert the birds to an incoming storm [Silber, 2016].
These barometer-for-brains bird species often eat a bunch of food quickly when they sense a storm coming. After gorging themselves on seeds and small insects, the birds flee the area to find somewhere safe to go. Some birds have even been documented to fly several miles looking for a safe place to rest when a storm is imminent.
Plain Sight Theory
The Plain Sight Theory explains that many birds actually don’t “go” anywhere when it rains. If the rain is not too intense, a good portion of birds will just keep on feeding [Clark, 2014]. Many bird species have feathers that are coated with natural oils that also help them to weather the storm. In fact, some species of birds have been observed standing rigidly with their beaks pointed towards the sky like a miniature avian statue bravely challenging the rain [Bird Spot, 2021]. This body position helps the bird to conserve energy because it minimizes its contact area with falling raindrops.
A skilled observer would note that this theory suggests that the birds don’t actually “go” anywhere. In fact, these brave birds would be visible by passers-by, predators, and skilled photographers. With that said, it’s not likely that many bird species use the hiding-in-plain sight method when the heavy rain starts coming down.
Burrowing Bird Theory
The Burrowing Bird Theory suggests that some bird species find refuge from the rain by burying themselves in vegetation, loose earth, or even debris piles to avoid getting soaked. Many birds that spend a lot of time foraging for food on the ground will use this technique to stay warm and dry. Species such as Robins have been documented to seek leaf or brush piles when the rain starts falling in order to quickly establish a makeshift shelter [Gilson, 2019].
What if it Keeps Raining?
If the rain persists for a very long length of time, a bird may find that its hunger grows stronger than its desire to remain safe and dry. When hunger overtakes some bird species, they may risk hypothermia in order to find even a meager bite to eat. Smaller birds tend to fair worse in rainstorms as it is more difficult for them to retain heat and overcome the flight dampening effects of falling raindrops than larger ones [Stolper, 2018].
Unfortunately, in some cases, too much rain has been known to result in the death of birds that are unprepared to weather the storm. If a bird’s feathers become waterlogged, it may not be able to escape a predator’s attack or it may simply drown. Large storm events such as a hurricane often leave thousands, if not, hundreds of thousands, of dead birds in their wake.
How to Help Our Avian Allies
Birds fill an important niche in the ecosystem. They do a great job at reducing insect populations, spreading plant seeds, and they even provide a food source for predator animals. In the face of urbanization, climate change, and deforestation, it’s important that we do what we can to help our avian allies.
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Many people are already accustomed to having bird feeders around; however, it’s less common to see a birdhouse in someone’s backyard. If you want to help out the birds in your community, you can easily install birdhouses and roosting boxes on your property [Gilson, 2019]. Birdhouses are often cheap to purchase and/or easy to make so why not install one today?
Another thing that you can do is to create shade structures that will act as a bird refuge during a storm. This can include the underside of birdbaths or even adding overhangs and ledges to buildings, walls, and fences. Adding vegetation to your property is another option. Shrubs, bushes, and hedges make great safe houses for birds [Gilson, 2019].
So there you have it; there are four primary theories on where birds go when it rains. In simple terms, birds either find shelter in nearby trees and bushes, stand still in the rain, burrow into the ground and debris piles, or flee the storm altogether. The next time it starts raining, take a look outside and see if you can spot any birds. Now that you know where to look, perhaps it won’t be so hard to find them.
Sources and Further Reading
Bird Spot. “Where Do Birds Go In the Rain?” 2021. <https://www.birdspot.co.uk/bird-brain/where-do-birds-go-in-the-rain>
Clark, Josiah. “Where do Birds go When it Rains?” Bay Nature. December 11, 2014. <https://baynature.org/2014/12/11/ask-naturalist-birds-rains//>
Gilson, Greg. “Where do birds go when it Rains and storms?” What birds are in my backyard? December 16, 2019. <https://www.whatbirdsareinmybackyard.com/2019/12/where-do-birds-go-during-bad-weather.html>
Monroe, Randall. “Where do Birds Go?” XKCD. <https://xkcd.com/1434/>
Silber, Emily. “Gimme Shelter: How Do Birds Surve A Snow Storm? Audubon Society. January 22, 2016. <https://www.audubon.org/news/gimme-shelter-how-do-birds-survive-snow-storm>
Stolper, Steve. “Where do Birds go When it Rains?” Nature Outside. February 11, 2018. <https://www.natureoutside.com/where-do-birds-go-when-it-rains/>
© 2021 Christopher Wanamaker
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on June 07, 2021:
Since we have a lot of trees in our yard, we figured they hung out in them during rains and storms. A possibility for sure. And, yes, I have observed changes in bird group behavior around storms. So both theories are valid. Thanks for sharing this info!
Rawan Osama from Egypt on June 06, 2021:
Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on June 06, 2021:
Very interesting. Thanks.