The Real Reason Seabirds Survive Typhoons by Flying Into Them

Some seabirds have a survival instinct that might seem unusual – faced with typhoons, they fly straight into them. A recent study explained what is behind this phenomenon and how these birds manage to survive by pushing their luck. Read on to learn more about how many birds seem to develop this counter-intuitive ability.


An observed premiere

A new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that seabirds known as striped shearwaters, which nest on islands near Japan, sometimes fly directly toward passing typhoons. There they literally weather the storm and fly near the eye for hours – behavior not observed in any other bird species. It appears to be a strategy they devised to survive massive storms.


“Nowhere to Hide”

Many birds turn their tails when a large storm is approaching, striving to avoid its trail or fly the other way. But certain seabirds live in areas where there’s “literally nowhere to hide” from storms, said Emily Shepard, a behavioral ecologist at Swansea University in Wales.

To study the shearwater’s response to hurricanes, Shepard and a team spent 11 years analyzing data from GPS trackers attached to the wings of 75 birds nesting on Awashima Island in Japan. They found that some of these birds actually deviated from their usual flight patterns and headed for the center of an approaching storm.


“We couldn’t believe what we saw”

The researchers found that in the group of 75 tracked birds, 13 flew for up to eight hours to within 37 miles of a storm’s eye – an area where winds were strongest – and followed the cyclone as it passed moved north. “It was one of those moments where we couldn’t believe what we were seeing,” Shepard said. “We had a few predictions about how they might behave, but this wasn’t one of them.”


Survival Trick: Avoid collisions, debris

The scientists found that the shearwaters are more likely to head towards the eye during stronger storms. It suggests the birds might follow the eye to avoid being blown inland, where they could fall onto land or be hit by flying debris, Shepard said.


No strategy for every bird

“We know very little about how seabirds react to storms because this type of extreme weather is by definition a rare event. And no two storms are alike,” Shepard continued The conversation. “The eye-to-eye strategy is probably only an option for fast-flying, wind-adapted birds like albatrosses and shearwaters. We will need more data to understand if and how seabirds with different flight styles and energy costs respond to such typhoons.”