When the hail starts pelting, what happens to Colorado’s birds?

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A great horned owl sits among the bare branches of a tree against a blue sky
Courtesy of Zack Thrower
Great horned owls are among about a dozen owl species in Colorado. They’re highly territorial and opportunistic; instead of building their own nests they take over abandoned ones from red-tailed hawks, squirrels and other species.

When a great horned owl takes up residence in your backyard, it’s hard not to get attached.

At least, that’s been the experience of Genna Dacanay. The Colorado Springs school counselor has spent the past year enjoying her resident owl, watching him in a nearby tree and logging his hoots in the Merlin app.

So when a storm started pounding her home with some pretty extreme hail last summer, Dacanay was disturbed to spot “her” owl sitting on a tree stump out there in the midst of it.

“I just didn't understand why it was out there in the open,” Dacanay recalled recently. “And then I watched it try to fly into the tree, but that wasn't very much shelter either, and I just got worried because I've become attached to this owl and I don't want anything to happen to it.”

That prompted her to wonder how Colorado’s bigger birds — owls, hawks and the like — survive the annihilating hail storms that can sweep the eastern side of the state this time of year.

When a Google search failed to turn up answers, Dacanay brought her question to Colorado Wonders.

(In case you’re wondering, her owl apparently made it through the storm just fine; Dacanay said she heard it in the yard just the other night.)

First up: sensible birds seek shelter

Colorado is among the top states for major hail events. In recent years, storms have wrecked a mall, killed zoo animals, injured concert-goers, and caused billions of dollars in damage.

They can also be hard on wildlife.

“Hail can absolutely have an impact on birds, even large ones like raptors,” said Marion Clément, senior avian ecologist at Bird Conservancy of the Rockies. “I'm glad that the great horned owl found some shelter.”

Clément guesses that Dacanay’s owl might have been a juvenile; they can take a bit longer to wise up to the severity of a situation like that. But even if the tree didn’t appear to provide much shelter to Dacanay’s eyes, the bird was probably fine.

“They can just huddle up against a tree trunk on the lee-side, out of the storm, so that they can get protected from even those really large hail storms,” said Clément, referring to the sheltered side of the tree. “Raptors tend to be territorial, which means that they stay in one place for a long time… so they have a pretty good idea of where the shelter is in their home.”

Three young owls crowd together in the branches of a cottonwood tree.
Courtesy of James Jacobs
A trio of juvenile owls in a Colorado cottonwood tree.

Other species have come up with their own adaptations. Famed naturalist Aldo Leopold observed pintail ducks turning into a storm in New Mexico and pointing their bills straight up. At first he was mystified.

“Then it dawned on me what they were doing,” Leopold wrote in his field notes. “In a normal position the hailstones would have hurt their sensitive bills, but pointed up vertically the bill presented a negligible surface from which hailstones would naturally be deflected.”

All this isn’t to say that hail never takes a toll on birds — in fact, there are some pretty gruesome events on record — but for your more run-of-the-mill storm, the real risk is to the youngest generation.

Hail season and nesting season: an unfortunate overlap

An adult bird on its own can seek shelter when the hail starts falling. But a nesting one has little choice but to stay put, since hailstones can crack eggs and kill fledglings.

Last spring, video of an osprey enduring a wretched amount of hail on her Boulder County nest went viral as testament to avian devotion.

“I love that video,” said Clément. “The bird just looks absolutely miserable as it gets pelleted by penny-sized hail and it stays on the nest and it's a good parent.”

However, when storms are bad enough, they can force even the most dedicated bird parents to seek shelter in order to save their own lives. Clement has a friend who maintains hundreds of osprey nesting platforms along the Patuxent River in Maryland.

“He's seen miles and miles of the river where all of the nests have failed because a large hailstorm moved through and the adults had to prioritize their survival over their young in the nest,” she said. 

More unfortunate timing — birds and storms are often on the move at the same time

Each spring millions of birds migrate over Colorado, headed to their northern nesting grounds. They can get a boost on their way from the strong winds that flow ahead of storms. But that puts them in a race against time to cover as many miles as possible before the bad weather catches up to them. When that happens, huge numbers of birds can be grounded at once, in what’s known (with some apocalyptic flair) as a “fallout event.”

In one notable example, the lighthouse keeper on a tiny remote island off the coast of Maine captured pictures of thousands of tiny, brightly-colored songbirds grounded during a storm.

“It just looks like there's bird confetti all over the ground,” said Clément. “Because all these warblers have had to come down as an emergency landing just to try to weather out the storm.” 

Fallout events can have grimmer consequences. Last fall, when a storm forced migrating birds down around Chicago, more than a thousand collided with the McCormack Place Lakeside Center.

For anyone who might be in the path of a fallout event — and that’s nearly everyone in Colorado — Clément said there are a couple of things they can do to help. 

First and foremost: turn off outside lights at night. That’s a good practice to help migrating birds regardless of the weather, but it can be even more crucial to help them stay oriented during bad weather.

And second, humans can help provide safe opportunities for shelter.

“If they have a backyard that has a variety of structure, including thickets and conifers and piles of sticks on the ground, all of that can really create a ‘fire escape route,’ if you will, in the rare instance that a bad storm moves through,” she said.