How will birds and other wildlife react to the solar eclipse?

Will you hear an Eastern screech owl trill during the eclipse? (Photo by Sharon Stiteler)

In case you hadn’t heard, there’s a major event happening Monday in North America, a total solar eclipse.

There’s a thin line of totality where the moon will come between the Earth and the sun and – like on an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – some parts of the continent will be in darkness for several minutes.

Initially, when I heard about the impending eclipse last year, I debated about trying to drive to the area of 100-percent coverage or staying where I live. In Minnesota, we are going to experience 80 percent coverage of the sun by the moon, which seems like a pretty cool view to me, and without dealing with crowds, heavy traffic, and hotels charging five times normal rate. Not to mention that it could be cloudy at totality.

If you are curious about what the eclipse will be like where you live, there’s a site that lets you enter your zip code and shows how long the eclipse will last and what percentage of the moon will cover the sun at that location.

Several friends have asked how the eclipse might impact birds, and they seemed surprised about my flippant attitude regarding the question.

An unusual sky-darkening event really shouldn’t freak out the animals. Don’t get me wrong, birds and other creatures will notice the eclipse. But skies darkening at the wrong time of the day are nothing new. Think about when bad storms hit. People frequently mention after a tornado hits that they knew something strange was going to happen because the birds suddenly got silent and the skies went dark.

Diurnal birds, those active during the day, tend to become still in the dark whether it be from storms, eclipses, or the usual rise and fall of the sun. Perhaps it’s something instinctual: If you’re a bird active during the day, then you won’t see as well at night and be vulnerable to predators like owls and coyotes. If there is a storm, it’s best to seek shelter and wait. This natural reaction to darkness is one of the reasons falconers hood their birds. If all they see is dark, the falcon or hawk will stay still on the arm, no matter what sounds and crowds of people might be around them.

Because eclipses happen so infrequently and at various times of year, we don’t have a strong grasp as to what exactly will happen. We’re nearing the end of breeding season and fewer birds are singing on territory. It’s a bit early in migration, so not too many will be hitting the skies to move south if the wind is good. But we might see common nighthawks take wing with their buzzy, skyward calls. Maybe a barred owl will hoot. Maybe crickets that normally sing at night will start chirping.

There’s a great website called iNaturalist in which people can report their nature sightings. It’s very similar to eBird, only this site wants all nature reports, from plants to animals to fungi to insects and more. They are hoping to gather information from all over the continent of what people notice in nature, and you can participate, too. And it’s free. Simply download the iNaturalist app and create an account. After you have that set up, you are asked to do three things during the eclipse:

  1. Thirty minutes before the peak, note all the wildlife you can. And are flowers open around you?
  2. During the peak of the eclipse, make a note of what wildlife is doing. Is it silent? Did crickets start chirping? Did flowers close?
  3. Thirty minutes after the peak, note how wildlife around you are responding. Are there different birds singing? Are flowers open? Did you see a nighttime critter running around in the daylight?

You can learn more about it here.

We have an unusual opportunity to gather and share information about this amazing celestial event and how it affects the natural world around us.

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