Thunder and Lightning…
Most companion birds spend the majority of their lives indoors, but may still show considerable sensitivity to outdoor weather, particularly as it relates to changes in barometric pressure. At least one scientific study — even though the subjects were sparrows rather than parrots (e.g., Metcalfe et al., 2013) — provides good evidence for such sensitivity. Interestingly, the sparrows reacted by eating more than usual; they probably did so to make up for time they would lose foraging because of a storm. Researchers found that these birds have special pressure-sensitive organs in their ears that help them track relevant fluctuations (see review in Breuner et al., 2013). It makes sense that creatures that can be affected by severe storms would have evolved some kind of early warning system to help them prepare for what could be dangerous or difficult conditions.
Alex And Midwest Weather
My knowledge of parrots’ reactions to weather is not based on scientific research, but rather anecdotal experience, and pre-dates those papers by decades. When Alex and I were in a basement lab at Purdue in the late 1970s, my students always said that he was the best predictor of severe thunderstorms and possible tornadoes, well ahead of the local weather forecasters. Unlike the sparrows, Alex did not reach for his food dish. Parrots are much bigger birds with a lot more energy reserves — they wouldn’t need to react the same way — and whether parrots have the same ear structure as sparrows is unknown.
Nevertheless, Alex somehow always sensed the incipient abrupt changes in atmospheric pressure, and would become very “edgy.” He would ask to go back to his cage, or to his gym, or to our knees, or to our shoulders, over and over. It appeared to us that he was searching for, but couldn’t find, a place in which he would feel safe. We learned by chance that, for some unknown reason, playing one of Hayden’s cello concertos would calm him down, and we all got very familiar with that piece of classical music during summers, when such weather was most common!
Location Seems Critical
Alex may have been somewhat special with regard to storms, or maybe it was just being in a place where severe storms were common. Griffin was a bit different. Although Griffin and Alex shared lab space for many years, again in basement laboratories, all of that time was in Arizona and Massachusetts, where storm ferocity (despite Arizona’s summer monsoon season) just isn’t the same as in the Midwest’s “tornado alley,” and in those spaces we really didn’t observe much reaction in either bird to the storms that passed through. Occasionally, we would notice some restlessness that we could correlate to outside weather, but never the really edgy behavior that Alex had shown in Indiana.
We also have never observed any real distress from either Griffin or Athena in our basement lab at Harvard, except for one storm where the thunderclaps were so loud that they could be easily heard by everyone in the entire building. Not only the birds but also all the humans, more or less, levitated in place. But that was an exception. However, we have noticed some differences in their behavior in the temporary space that we have this summer, with its bank of large windows across one wall.
Both African greys, but particularly Griffin, have reacted to the severe thunderstorms we have experienced this year, and even to some of the milder ones. Athena seems to want to be as close to her favorite humans as possible, even if they are near those windows. But, given that she always likes to be close to her favorite humans, her behavior doesn’t seem to change much. Griffin, in contrast, wants to be as far inside the lab as possible. The birds’ cages are in an alcove area along the wall opposite the windows, and Griff insists that he wants to “go back”; he crawls into his cage and sits on the perch farthest away from the lightning and thunder display! Just rain — even hard rain — doesn’t seem to bother either of them at all; it has to be quite a show to get them to react.
Rain Means Different Things To Different Parrots
For many species, the beginning of just a lot of rain signifies that more food will be available in the near future, and thus triggers the start of a breeding season — and therefore not danger. So maybe it is the unpredictability and novelty of the light and very loud noise that gets to Griffin; he’s had very little prior experience with storms in his 24-year life: He came to me as a 7.5-week-old chick and went right into those basement labs. Athena, in contrast, was 4 months old when she arrived in the lab, may have experienced some spring storms before her arrival, and consequently might just accept them as the norm.
I suspect that parrots may also react very differently depending on where their species originate. Friends tell me that their smaller birds —cockatiels and parakeets — seem to like to bathe when it rains outside. That behavior makes a lot of sense given that these species originate in semi-arid areas in Australia and move around to be near water. To them, the sound of rain means that fresh water will be in abundance, at least momentarily, and that they should take advantage of the opportunities it confers.
For the larger parrots that may live in rainforest areas, water scarcity is usually less of an issue, and rain and mist may be more of a constant part of life. Thus, they may be less likely to react, or at most simply become a bit nervous at the approach of an especially big storm. In any case, if your bird begins to act a bit strangely for what seems to be no reason at all — take a look at the weather forecast and see if that might correlate with this behavioral change!
Breuner, C.W., Sprague, R.S., Patterson, D.H., & Woods, H.A. (2013). Environment, behavior and physiology: do birds use barometric pressure to predict storms? Journal of Experimental Biology, 216,1982-1990.
Metcalfe, J., Schmidt, K.L, Kerr, W.B., Guglielmo, C.G., & MacDougall-Shackleton, S.A. (2013). White-throated sparrows adjust behaviour in response to manipulations of barometric pressure and temperature. Animal Behaviour, 86, 1285-1290.