The Great Equalizer: What do Birds do in the Rain

by Aug 4, 2017News2 comments

Rain: The Great Equalizer

By Krista Botting, Summer Field Biologist

Gray clouds roll in, a breeze starts up, and you can smell ozone on the air. You know it’s coming. The birds know it’s coming. Even your dog knows it’s coming. The rain might start as a sprinkle, or it may come in a torrent of water.

Do you ever notice how quiet it gets before a storm? The birds stop singing and fluttering around. Where do they go? What do they do when the drops start falling?!
The answer to that depends on the species. Some birds don’t care about the rain—like ducks, geese, and other fresh-water birds. They spend a good deal of their time already in the water, diving in and out of lakes and ponds. Their feathers are heavily waterproofed, so water falling from the sky isn’t much cause for worry. In stronger storms, they may seek out shelter if winds become too fierce.
Seabirds take different strategies depending on where they spend most of their time. Most seabirds have strongly waterproofed feathers, but ocean storms are a different beast than storms over land. There’s no place to perch, no shelter, and one toss of the waves can pull you under. The larger birds far out to sea stay put and wait it out. They can handle the rough waves. But smaller seabirds that are closer to land will flee a storm well before it hits. Like most animals, birds are attuned to changes in the weather and can sense the storm in time to find shelter.
Although all birds have some waterproofing ability, land birds have less.  Birds create air pockets between their feathers, which helps hold in heat. It’s like having a permanent down jacket. This is why on cold days the birds are fluffier.  But it’s worse for small birds. There’s a real danger for them. If those air pockets fill with water instead of air, the bird is in danger of hypothermia. And, the smaller the bird, the more heat it loses, and the wetter the bird, the less heat it can keep in. To avoid this, smaller birds take shelter before it starts raining. Larger birds can usually stay out a little longer, but eventually take cover in a tree or bush.
A passing shower or storm is one thing, but deluges that last for days can become a problem. Food and fat reserves start to run low, especially for smaller birds that need to eat more often. This will drive birds to brave bad weather, especially when it’s been raining for a while. It’s a choice they must make: take shelter in hopes that the rain will be quick, or continue foraging for food in case it isn’t.
Every day is a battle for survival in the life of an animal.


  1. Jeff S. Wolfe

    The N.A.Breeding Bird Survey provides a lot of data about this since it uses the same observer for at least two consecutive years and it records rain, cloud cover, wind, and temperature. One important question it often does not address… ?individuals and species totals changes by weather within the same week of the same year? This data exists, at least on a limited level, because some observers keep (and/or) send in their rain out observation days. Some observers repeat the count the same week, especially if they are observers that do multiple route counts and travel a distance (over-night stay) to observe.

    Since I’m observing in the rain right now, here are several species that are not completely silenced by light rain ( less than one-quarter inch per hour). Notice that I’m not offering any answer to how much more/less these individuals would be singing if it were not raining, and *one day of observation is only a piece of science and not science at all by itself.

    TODAY, MAY 31, 2021, 8:45am, rural Livingston County, Missouri

    Cardinals about the same or more in the light rain
    Mourning dove more in the light rain
    Baltimore oriole a lot more in the light rain
    House sparrow less in the light rain
    Tufted titmouse less in the light rain
    Red-bellied woodpecker less in the light rain
    Canada goose about the same
    Ruby-Throated hummingbird appear in light rain, but vocalization not common most days

  2. Jessica wiliam

    So interesting. The world of birds have so many wonderful things that I want to discover. At home, I also have a bird. It look so beautiful. Hope you write more so I can know more about them to take care them better.


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