Climate change models predict more frequent hurricanes, and that could be a problem for the migrating birds that fly right into them.

Researchers focused on one particular Atlantic seabird, the sooty tern, and mapped the path they take while migrating every year using data from tagged birds over the last several decades. Comparing that to paths of hurricanes from the same timeframe showed an overlap.

sooty-tern-flight A sooty tern in flight. The migratory seabirds might be threatened if Earth’s climate changes to cause more frequent and severe hurricanes. Photo: Ryan Huang/Duke University

“The route the birds take and that most Atlantic-forming hurricanes take is basically the same — only in reverse,” study leader Ryan Huang said in a statement from Duke University. “That means these birds, who are usually very tired from traveling long distances over water without rest, are flying head-on into some of the strongest winds on the planet.”

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Those hurricanes form in the Atlantic and migrate into the Caribbean between June and November, while the birds are migrating south and east from Florida through the Caribbean, past the northern coast of South America and to the eastern Brazilian coast.

Although it’s unclear how many of the sooty terns are killed in hurricanes during their migrations, there appeared to be a link between where birds were found dead and where hurricanes had barreled through.

“Given that hurricanes are catastrophic disturbances that can cause extensive damage to both terrestrial and marine habitats, one might reasonably expect such storms to impact seabirds, both at the colony and wrecking individuals during migration at sea,” the researchers wrote in their study in the journal PeerJ. “As climate change may lead to an increase in severity and frequency of major hurricanes, this may pose a long-term problem for this colony.”

sooty-terns A scientist works to tag sooty terns in Florida, to track them and find out whether they are threatened by hurricanes. Photo: Ryan Huang/Duke University

With more hurricanes, “the chances of sooty terns being hit by storms will likely go up,” Huang explained.

And it’s unlikely they would be the only species affected by increased hurricane activity, according to the researchers. It’s also unlikely that only the larger storms would be a problem.

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“What’s really interesting is that it’s not just the big category 4 and 5 storms that can kill large numbers of birds,” Duke’s Stuart L. Pimm said. “A series of smaller, weaker storms may have the same impact as that of a single large, strong storm” because the birds are “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”