Birds and the Eclipse

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On April 8, 2024, there was an eclipse. On average, there are total eclipses of the sun every 18 months, so every two or three years. In this century, there will be 224 eclipses, 68 of them in total. Some people are so fascinated by the phenomenon that they travel the world to see each one. I was once on a special cruise to the South Seas – in the areas of Fiji and New Caledonia- to see a total eclipse. My first. Some passengers had seen as many as 19 total eclipses. 

Image of a feather on a branch in front of the sun

There’s a lot of speculation about how eclipses affect birds. Some say birds quit singing or flying or somehow interrupt their normal activities. Reports say birds flew lower, flew in confusing patterns, or stopped flying and perched. Diurnal birds fell silent, owls began to hoot, and Whip-poor-wills called.

In 1544, an eclipse-watcher reportedly noticed that birds went quiet when the sky went dark—a phenomenon modern-day viewers have also experienced. There’s also a (probably apocryphal) story about Thomas Edison, who set up his telescope in an abandoned henhouse to watch the 1878 eclipse. During totality, the story goes, he was mobbed by chickens coming home to roost, flying “in, around, and over the frantic inventor.” Excerpted from The Verge.

There are a lot of anecdotal stories about bird behavior during an eclipse, but none seem to me to be significant. I took a walk during an almost total eclipse a few years ago and didn’t see anything unusual about the behavior of the birds I saw. There was a study at a zoo that looked at 17 species of animals during a total eclipse and concluded that most animals thought it was nighttime and prepared for their usual nocturnal activities. One of the conclusions was that flamingos “seemed distressed” and made unfamiliar vocalizations. Seems to me just subjective observations that may or may not mean anything.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology “During the 2017 eclipse, we saw a decrease in flying insects, flying birds – but we didn’t see anything like the typical pattern of movement when it gets dark at night,” said Andrew Farnsworth, a visiting researcher at the Cornell Lab. “At sunset, there is typically a big pulse of movement showing insects, birds and bats either going to ground to settle for the night or just beginning nocturnal activity.” 

A lot of the research and so-called research is based upon one-time observations, not substantial data. There’s no question that birds and other animals, and perhaps even some plants, might react in some way to the moon blocking out the sun and darkening the sky. But is the behavior any different than what happens when a large black cloud, portending a storm, moves overhead? A total eclipse blocks much of the sunlight, but not all of it; it just looks like dawn or dusk and it only happens for 3-4 minutes at most.

Maybe birds do react in some way unique to a solar eclipse, but I suspect not.

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