When a particularly intense storm is raging outside, do you ever stop to wonder how and where animals are seeking shelter?
Hail, in particular, seems like a dangerous weather event for animals given that chunks of ice several centimeters in diameter and falling at up to 171 kilometers per hour (106 miles per hour) could be colliding with their bodies.
And although hail-induced fatalities do occur each season, many species of birds appear to walk away (or fly away) from storms unscathed, despite their delicate air-filled bones. So how do they do it? Both flocks and individual birds around the world have been spotted using one interesting trick – instead of shrinking away from the downpour, they tilt their necks upright and point their bills to the sky. A 1986 review called Reactions of birds to heavy rain lists documented instances of this behavior during hailstorms in black-headed gulls and some species of terns and sandpipers.
And now, this tactic has been caught on camera for the first time by a Twitter user in Toronto. Jeremy Ross, a biologist at the University of Oklahoma, told Live Science that the fascinating footage of Canada geese calmly looking straight up as sizable hailstones fall around them is a great example of this curious phenomenon.
The review article states that birds take on this posture because it keeps their oil-slicked feathers pressed down into a natural raincoat and encourages falling water to quickly flow off them rather than infiltrating their plumage, which could lead to hypothermia. Yet the authors do not explain how the upward positioning protects against the potential physical damage from hail.
For that, Ross referred Live Science to an account by naturalist Aldo Leopold, published in 1919, wherein he describes how a group of pintail ducks in New Mexico responded to a hailstorm.
"Each bird was facing toward the storm, and each had his head and bill pointed almost vertically into the air," Leopold wrote. "I was puzzled for a moment as to the meaning of the unusual posture. Then it dawned on me what they were doing. 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. The correctness of this explanation was later proven by the fact that a normal position was resumed as soon as the hail changed into a slow rain."
As logical as this explanation sounds, the 1986 article states that bird researchers have also observed barnacle geese, bewick’s swans, and groups of black-headed gulls who were caught out in the open during hailstorms choosing to tuck their delicate heads under their wings or body feathers – seemingly preferring a bit of protection over possibly looking death in the eye.
[H/T: Live Science]