Posted by: ktzefr | August 2, 2018

What the birds know…

A cup of tea, a good book, and the falling rain.  One thought leads to another…

Rain.  It was early summer a few years ago, just before hurricane season officially began in the Caribbean.  I was walking on a path in the US Virgin Islands National Park when I ran into a local man tending the plumeria and hibiscus bushes.  We must have talked about the cloudless skies after the night rains, the profusion of blooms everywhere, the mango trees full of ripe fruit.  I especially love the flame trees that once decorated the hillsides of St. John in June.  (I don’t know if they survived last year’s hurricanes or not.)  Maybe I mentioned the mocking bird that sang every night into the wee hours outside our window. 

In any case, we talked about storms.  They’ve been hit a few times over the four decades that I’ve been going to the islands.  After Hurricane Hugo in 1989 the old military air hangar where we had landed on previous trips to the islands was devastated and St. Thomas built a new airport.  It was seriously damaged again last year.

It’s hard to predict the exact route a big storm will take, but the locals have ways that seem to work as well as those the weather folks employ. 

“The birds,” he said.  “Don’t worry about the storm if the birds are still singing.  But, if there is silence, if the birds fly away, it’s best to leave or prepare.” 

Research has shown that birds can hear infrasound and are sensitive to barometric pressure, so they know when a storm is on its way — especially when the storm is as large and as powerful as a hurricane.   Infrasound is a low-frequency sound that is below the normal limit of human hearing, and at higher intensities animals may not hear but rather feel infrasound through vibrations in different parts of the body. 

Some birds fly away, others take cover.  During Hurricane Harvey a hawk (now named Harvey) took shelter via the open window of a taxi cab before the storm hit.

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Tea.  I opened my last bag of the superb Ceylon tea my friend Ramani brought back from Sri Lanka last year.  She went home again in July and I’m hoping some new leaves eventually make their way to my cupboard.

The 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka that killed more than 20,000 people along the coast of the Indian Ocean left wildlife officials puzzled.  They could not find any dead animals, not even a bird or a bunny rabbit.  The Yala National Park, one of the biggest wildlife reserves, was flooded, but the hundreds of wild elephants and leopards had fled to higher ground and survived.  Animals live in a milieu of electromagnetic waves and mechanical vibrations that define lives and separate creatures, according to a wonderful book I read some years back — Bats Sing, Mice Giggle: The Surprising Science of Animals’ Inner Lives by Karen Shanor and Jagmeet Kanwal. 

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The book.  I have become absolutely fascinated by a book that I never imagined caring one whit about.  I loved Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, but I had never read his classic Wind, Sand and Stars until now.  It’s one of the most popular books ever written about flying.  Still…stories of flights above the Sahara and the Andes in the 1920s and 30s to deliver the mail?  How interesting could it be?  On the back cover: “A beautiful book, a brave book, and a book that should be read against the confusion of this world.” ~ New York Times

So…on one occasion, when the pilot discovers dragonflies in the desert many miles from an oasis, he is puzzled.  Had they fled danger?  Could they have just been blown there?  It was the first indication of a sand storm coming.

“What filled me with a barbaric joy was that I had understood a murmured monosyllable of this secret language, had sniffed the air and known what was coming, like one of those primitive men to whom the future is revealed in such faint rustlings; it was that I had been able to read the anger of the desert in the beating wings of a dragonfly.” 

If we could only figure out what the birds and other animals know and how and when they know it…

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