Humans can race to get out of a hurricane's path — and some animals can sense a storm coming and flee — but there are legions of animals that can't simply get out of the way. Wildlife and livestock often can't escape severe storms like humans can. Here are the various ways they hunker down or try to find refuge when bad weather hits.
Sensing a storm is coming
Some research suggests there are animals that can pick up on signs of imminent serious weather, pushing them to leave the area before storms arrive. Birds may be able to sense barometric pressure and other changes in the environment, which encourages them to get out of harm's way, reports The Telegraph.
Some birds will even speed up their annual migration, according to Forbes, leaving earlier than usual if a severe storm is approaching. For example, white-throated sparrows will migrate sooner during their spring or fall migration to escape a large storm, responding to falling barometric pressure.
Studies also have shown that sharks respond to the falling barometric pressure associated with storms by moving into deeper water to find refuge.
Wind plays a role
A manatee is rescued in Melbourne, Florida, after Hurricane Irma. (Photo: Bill Greer/Florida Fish and Wildlife/Flickr)
Strong winds can push birds hundreds of miles away from their home habit, according to the National Wildlife Federation. One year, a North Carolina brown pelican was found on the roof of a night club in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Young or weak birds can become separated from the rest of their flock and often have difficulty making it home.
Powerful winds can also blow creatures, like baby squirrels, out of their nests. It can blow foliage off trees, taking away shelter for wildlife. Those leaves can also end up in waterways, which is a serious problem for fish. After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, an estimated 184 million fish died in south Louisiana's Atchafalaya Basin alone, reports USA Today. Strong winds ripped leaves off trees and shrubs, tossing them into wetlands. The rotting organic material led to extremely low levels of oxygen in the water, which suffocated the fish.
Water mammals will often seek shelter in open water or find sheltered areas during hurricanes, but they're not always safe. Dolphins and manatees have occasionally been blown to shore during big storms, reports the NWF. After Hurricane Andrew, a manatee was discovered in a pond on a golf course in South Miami, about a half mile from her home in Biscayne Bay.
Water, water everywhere
Animals that get trapped in high water and flooding water can obviously drown. But there are many other dangers that come with hurricane-related water.
Surges of saltwater onshore can harm wildlife and vegetation that are accustomed to freshwater and can't tolerate the salinity, says the NWF. The reverse is true too, as heavy rains dump water into watersheds. The delicate balance of fresh and salt water is changed in these coastal river basins, upsetting the ecosystems and harming the creatures that live in them.
When Mother Nature moves your food
Many animals lose their regular food supply when a hurricane arrives, as strong winds and rains strip trees of fruits, nuts and berries. Squirrels are often particularly hard hit, typically losing their source of nuts.
During Hurricane Andrew, about one-quarter of Louisiana's public oyster seed grounds were wiped out, according to USA Today. Because the oysters were an important food source for wading birds on Louisiana's Barrier Islands, the birds suffered mass mortalities as a direct result of the storm.
But some other animals actually benefit from the tumult of a storm, National Geographic reports. Scavengers such as raccoons typically find new sources of food and occasionally deer can benefit when the ground is upturned by strong winds, bringing roots, shrubs and fresh grasses to the surfaces. Later, however, these roots can rot, causing a food shortage for deer.
Creatures take shelter where they can during a hurricane. Some ocean-dwelling birds will keep flying in the eye of a storm while a hurricane is at sea, staying there until the storm passes over the coast and they can find refuge on land.
Burrowing animals such as some owls and snakes will dig down to escape the storm, staying protected from winds and rains. The only danger is that sometimes their burrows will be blocked with debris after the storm, preventing them from escaping.
What about livestock?
It's not always easy to evacuate horses, cows or other livestock, so owners often wonder if it's best to confine them in a shelter or leave them outside in pastures. It may seem safer to have them inside, but there are risks, according to the Humane Society of the United States. Just like people, animals can be injured by flooding, winds, flying debris and other dangers associated with a hurricane.
"Owners may believe that their animals are safer inside barns, but in many circumstances, confinement takes away the animals' ability to protect themselves. This decision should be based on the type of disaster and the soundness and location of the sheltering building."
The best pasture has no non-native trees that would uproot easily, no barbed wire fencing, no overhead power lines or poles and is at least an acre of space. It should have tall brush, strong trees and be on high ground. Most horses and cows will instinctively seek shelter in trees and brush.
According to the Texas Cooperative Extension:
Most animals are used to being outside in bad weather and will be simply stressed and need clean feed, a dry place to stand, and water. Some electrolytes or vitamins will be beneficial in returning them to normal...Younger animals are more susceptible to stress than older animals and may need more care.
Most damage to buildings, pens, and animals comes from wind and flying objects so the ability to protect them in advance from these dangers greatly reduces the chance of injury to livestock.