The wind in the willows

Have you ever noticed how the wind seems to affect wildlife?

On blustery days jackdaws enjoy eddies around church spires. Foxes and other mammals appear skittish. Gulls wheel up out of sight or glide above the sea in what looks a dangerous dance with the waves. But is there any definite reason for this behaviour?

Corvids, species of the crow family, are well documented behaving in a way not directly beneficial to meeting their everyday basic needs of eating, sheltering and generally trying to stay alive. Or as most people put it: having fun. There are cases of crows sledging down snowy slopes, hanging upside down off branches and what looks suspiciously like teasing each other. On windy days, of which there have been a lot of late, grey blank skies are peppered with crows, rooks and jackdaws, revelling in the unseen swirling gusts of air. It appears taking on the wind is another one of their games.

Scientists have explored this type of behaviour extensively and offer several theories. Although having fun isn’t immediately beneficial to an animal’s survival, many suggest there are long term or delayed benefits. Learning through play is advantageous as an animal can practise skills such as fighting with their relatively benign siblings. These learnt skills then equip it to deal with potentially life threatening conflicts in the future. Demonstrating strength or guile through the course of play can also attract attention of prospective mates.


Artwork provided by Adam Murphy

Intriguing too is how lively mammals become in windy weather. Rabbits ping from field to hedgerow with increased nervousness. You may have noticed domestic cats careering around fence corners more enthusiastically or even the high spirited babble of children in a school playground strung with extra energy.

A quick internet search doesn’t reveal any tried and tested hypotheses but there is a lot of speculation. One sensible suggestion is that wind leads to a heightened stimulation of an animal’s tactile, auditory and visual sensory systems, simply making the animal more excitable.

Undoubtedly there are down sides to the gales for wildlife. Their homes are also destroyed when trees blow over, uprooting earthy abodes and bumping to ground tree top dwellings. Changes in prevailing winds can disrupt migration patterns of birds.

In the last few days, hundreds of little auks (part of the family that includes puffins) have been blowing ashore on the east coast of Scotland. Normally they can be found overwintering on the North Sea, as cold as that sounds, but they have been buffeted inland by strong winds from the north east. Once grounded they struggle to take off again.

Still, there is a part of the observer that can’t help but soar alongside those others who delight in the fast flowing air.

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With a degree in Natural Sciences (Biology and Geography) from Durham University, I went on to volunteer in conservation before working short term contracts with several of the main UK conservation organisations. As well I have worked in sustainable transport with two of the leading UK charities. With experience in practical conservation, environmental education and public engagement, I have a strong belief that society and the environment must always be considered in conjunction. The need to preserve functioning ecological processes rather than ecological states is also something I am keen to see conservation move towards.

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