Q. Dear Twig: Do birds ever get hit by lightning?
A. Yes, they do. But not too often. Here are three examples: In May 2006, a newspaper in Africa said 49 pelicans got hit by lightning as they flew through a thunderstorm. The luckless birds fell on a school, in a stadium and in front of a guy's house. "It was terrifying," the guy said. Most of the birds died.
In 1930, The Auk ("awk") (a bird-science journal) said lightning killed 27 pelicans in Utah. A man at a gas station saw it happen. He stopped to watch the flock fly over. "There was a loud clap of thunder, and immediately the birds began falling."
In 1840, John James Audubon ("awd-uh-bon"), the famous painter and watcher of birds, saw two nighthawks get it. "While at Indian Key, on the coast of Florida, I saw a pair of these birds killed by lightning, while they were on wing, during a tremendous thunderstorm. They fell on the sea."
Sad, yes. But rare, it seems. Chalk it up as a small, normal risk of life in the wild.
P.S. Also reported zapped by lightning: cows, sheep, chickens, caribou and sandhill cranes.
The account from Africa was in the Nairobi (Kenya) Daily Nation. The report in The Auk was in the January 1930 issue. The Audubon account comes from his classic Birds of America. Other sources included a 1987 report in the Florida Field Naturalist titled "Osprey Killed by Lightning at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida."
Twig hitched a ride on a passing common loon that apparently took shelter during storms and is currently vacationing at an undisclosed location in the UNESCO Niagara Escarpment World Biosphere Reserve. This column first ran on May 14, 2006.
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Buy (or not) Twig's books at http://estore.osu-extension.org/ (enter "twig walkingstick" in the search box), including his latest, Beware the Flying Steamer Duck! Birds and What They Doo (including sometimes getting hit by lightning), and his previousest, Hairy Blenny and the Monkeyface Prickleback: Freshwater Life and a Bit 'o Salt — the latter the winner, believe it or not, of a 2008 gold award for writing and the 2008 outstanding professional skill award for writing from the Association for Communication Excellence in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Life and Human Sciences, yeah, we know, go figure. Also available, his firstest, now back in print: Purple and Green and Stinky in Spring (bugs, plants, wildlife, farming).