by Whit Gibbons

October 16, 2016

As October's Hurricane Matthew demonstrated, from Haiti to North Carolina, hurricanes can be devastating from a human perspective. They can leave people reeling from loss of property, pets and even lives. Homes, highways, entire communities can be destroyed. But how does a hurricane affect our native wildlife?

The answer is simple. Compared to the way people are affected by hurricanes, the overall impact on wildlife communities is minimal. We measure impacts differently for most wild animals than we do for ourselves, so we do not perceive wildlife as suffering the devastating effects from hurricanes that people do.

With people, and even with pets, we empathize with each individual who suffers. Someone being rescued from a car floating down a swollen river, a family examining the remains of their former home or police searching for a missing person are commonplace.

With wild animals, we may hear a few stories of the plight of individual animals, but for the most part we are concerned with how the species fared overall in the region. The loss of a single bluebird will go unremembered as long as plenty are around to occupy bluebird boxes in the spring. A hurricane will not significantly affect the overall bluebird population levels as long as healthy birds are already present.

On another scale, few animals have "personal property" that can be lost in a hurricane. Raccoons and frogs need only survive the storm because they do not have permanent homes that can be destroyed. Many birds have structural assets in the form of nests. But most hurricanes occur in late summer and fall, a season when relatively few birds occupy nests in trees that can be blown down.

Among other wildlife, beavers may suffer property loss of dams due to powerful flooding associated with hurricanes. But in the way that beavers do, they simply set about repairing the damage as soon as the water level declines, with little overall effect on their lives.

Gopher tortoises, the big terrestrial turtles of the Southeast that make their homes in deep burrows dug into sandy areas, can have flooding damage from a hurricane. But their homes become livable again when the water subsides. Some tortoises simply move to another, drier burrow.

Official hurricane season is from June through November, but in keeping with nature not being bound by man-made rules, officially designated hurricanes have occurred in May and December, in the "off-season." And close to 90 percent occur from August to October. Residents of Charleston (Hugo, September 1989), Miami (Andrew, August 1992), New Orleans (Katrina, August 2005) and New Jersey (Sandy, October 2012) will never forget their hurricane experience.

Despite the appearance of hurricanes on a recurring basis, the ancestors of all native species evolved to deal with them. Native plants and wild animals use a variety of strategies to weather a storm.

Palm trees with their type B personalities will bend like fishing poles, becoming parallel to the ground against awesome winds. Oak trees rely on brute strength that works for moderately high winds, but against category 4 or 5 hurricanes their roots are sometimes ripped from the ground. Pine trees surrender to the winds with broken trunks.

But despite the losses, replacements for lost trees will eventually appear naturally. Shorebirds and coastal songbirds hunker down beneath bushes and other ground cover. The most common bird injuries reported following high winds are generally to hawks and owls. A few individual birds of all sorts no doubt perish, but long-term damage to native bird populations is minimal.

So, how do hurricanes affect our native wildlife? The answer is they do not significantly affect the long-term existence of native wildlife in any sense of long-term sustainability. All species will survive. Some will even thrive because of water replenishment of wetlands or the opening of tree canopies. People are the only ones who have to be concerned about hurricanes - and no one will forget the ones they've lived through.

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